Homeless Kansans of all backgrounds gather at Century II

A young family that expects to be homeless any day now showed up. So did a man who hadn't had a haircut in months. And a couple lured by the free lunch. Still others came to help. Like the 21-year-old disabled woman who has knitted 150 scarves to give away. Or the woman who never thought about the homeless until her brother died in a shelter five years ago.

Together, they came Wednesday to Century II's Expo Hall to connect with one another. It was all part of the homeless count, a one-day exercise conducted every other year across the country in the last week of January.

Approximately 1,000 volunteers in 40 counties in Kansas participated Wednesday.

Volunteers searched where homeless people congregate — soup kitchens, shelters, under bridges. Organizers in Wichita went a step further. For the first time, they also asked homeless people to come to the Expo Hall, not just in hopes of getting a more accurate count but also to help the people.

"We're really trying to connect people with benefits," said Luella Sanders of the United Way of the Plains, which was the event's lead organization. "But we're also trying to meet immediate needs."

Thirty-one agencies and groups — private and public — were there. Some were about connecting to jobs or housing, others to medical and mental health.

Donated games were passed out. Dominoes was the first to go.

Lunch was served. Socks, toothbrushes and second-hand clothes were available. Free dental screenings were provided.

"It's like Christmas," said one homeless man who declined to give his name.

Most of those who came were willing to sit down and fill out the 17-question survey, a key part of the homeless count. The count helps determine how much federal funding communities receive to help the homeless.

But it wasn't all about numbers. It was about real people and their stories.

A young family

Billy Green, 25, is scared. Not for himself, but for his family.

"We're not homeless now," he said, "but I've been out of work for a month and a half and we're two months behind in the rent. We're about to be kicked out of the house.

"If it was me, I'd be OK."

He was there Wednesday with his wife, Veronica Avalos, 23, their two children, Abigail, 4, and Lilly Anna, 1, and their nephew, Andrew Avalos, 4.

They all live together, along with Andrew's father.

Billy was hoping to find a clue about what to do next. After going from one booth to the next, he hadn't found any answers.

"This is hard," he said.

But their day was brightened by Karla Reichmann, one of more than 120 volunteers. She saw the family come in with three kids in tow and offered to help out.

She carried Lilly, then took all three around in search of cookies and suckers while Billy and Veronica talked to service providers.

"They needed to do what they had to do," Reichmann said, "and I wanted to help."

First haircut in months

Haircuts were popular. Bryant Williams, 44, has been homeless for two years and is staying at the Union Rescue Mission. Wednesday, he got his first haircut in eight months.

"Feels pretty good," he said.

Originally from Florida, Williams was in California before coming to Wichita about six months ago.

"There's more of a chance of finding work in Wichita," he said. "I do a little bit of everything."

Williams appreciated the event.

"This is a good thing," he said. "But I don't think some will come because they shy away from being around too many people."

Hand-made gifts

Laura Klausmeyer was bored and looking for something to do a few years ago.

So the 21-year-old, who has low vision and orthopedic disabilities, took up knitting. She made 20 scarves the first year and gave them to homeless people at the Lord's Diner.

"I like to give them away so they won't be cold," Klausmeyer said.

Last year, she made 70 scarves and also gave those away through Advocates to End Chronic Homeless, a Wichita nonprofit. It takes five to six hours to knit one scarf.

Wednesday, Klausmeyer brought 150 of her scarves to give away from AECH's booth. All the while she sat working on another one.

Her goal: 200 for next year.

"I want to give them all away to help people," she said.

Making do

David Wisely, 22, and his girlfriend, Sheila Moler, 20, are homeless. They try to ward off the winter's cold with about 15 blankets.

"If we go to a shelter," he said, "we can't be together. So we sleep outside. We sleep on three blankets and pile the rest on top of us."

Wednesday, they came because they knew it was important to be counted.

Plus, Wisely said, "Anywhere they serve food is good."

But they also took their time joining hundreds of others going from booth to booth.

"Just in case," Wisely said.

Getting personal

Denise Gunkel never gave homeless people much of a thought.

Then five years ago her brother died while living in a homeless shelter.

"And then I got involved," she said. "Look at me now."

She is co-chair of AECH, a group that reaches out to the homeless and operates the 75-bed overflow shelter.

"We need more beds," Gunkel said. "We're seeing a lot more young people.

"You don't think of the homeless. And when you do, you think of someone out on the street, looking for a free ride. You don't think about it until it affects you."

Homelessness has many origins. But it has a familiar pattern: Someone loses an income, gets behind on bills and drains their savings.

"All of sudden they don't have a home," Gunkel said.

But she sees hope, because more people are talking about homelessness.

"The mayor is talking about feeding the homeless," she said. "When we have people talking about it, it rallies the resources to help."

Paying the price

Lewis Hall, 46, is homeless, but he had a pretty good day. He got a haircut and won one of the door prizes, a sleeping bag.

He was homeless by choice for six years in Texas.

"I was trying to escape family problems," Hall said.

He came to Wichita about seven years ago and has been homeless for three years. He stays at the overflow shelter.

A former mechanic, he said he once made $500 a week and had a responsible position.

"Due to my own misbehaving, I lost that," Hall said. "We have to pay a price."

Wednesday, he was looking for help.

"If these resources work, they're really wonderful," he said.

The job search

At the Wichita Workforce Center booth, Veronica Triana was busy answering questions.

She was able to direct seven people to services for disabled people.

"I had one man tell me he didn't want to apply for disability because he just wanted to work," Triana said. "I explained to him that he could do both."

She stresses to the homeless that a key to finding a job is social networking.

"They think I have a magic answer for jobs," Triana said, "but I don't. But there are ways to make a connection. If they're not working right now, they can volunteer and connect with people. It's a start."

Finally, a home

A year ago, Rachel Moreaux, 26, was homeless. Not anymore. Wednesday, she and her friend, Willow Smith, came to the Expo Center to help others.

No more volunteers were needed for this event, but her message was delivered.

"People just need a chance," Moreaux said. "Someone to say they care."

Smith gave Moreaux that chance. She met Moreaux and her fiance, Melvin, about a year ago at a park near Century II. Rachel and Melvin were homeless.

"They totally blew my whole idea of what a homeless person was," Smith said. "They were so loving and open."

Smith returned to her home in Winfield, talked to some other friends and eventually found help for Rachel and Melvin. They have since gotten married and live in Winfield. He has a construction job.

Rachel was always convinced she could do something with her life. A few years ago she got her high school diploma and later became culinary certified. She and her mother plan to start a catering business.

"I feel 10,000 times better," Rachel said.