Retiring director Sandy Swank ‘taught me that homelessness has a face’

Sandy Swank, director of homeless services for Inter-Faith Ministries, left, visits with resident Jennifer Dowling at Inter-Faith Inn on Thursday. Swank is retiring after 27 years with the agency. (April 27, 2017)
Sandy Swank, director of homeless services for Inter-Faith Ministries, left, visits with resident Jennifer Dowling at Inter-Faith Inn on Thursday. Swank is retiring after 27 years with the agency. (April 27, 2017) The Wichita Eagle

Sandy Swank blames it all on the neighbor boy who kissed her when she was 5 years old and grew up to be a tuba player.

Swank was working what she considered to be a temporary job assisting the homeless at Inter-Faith Ministries in 1990 when that childhood friend walked up.

“I thought he came to visit me,” Swank said. “It turned out he was homeless, and he was looking for a place to stay.

“That changed everything. I realized, ‘This happens to everybody, and I’m here to learn something that I need to learn.’ 

Swank finally ended her “temporary” job this week, retiring Friday as director of homeless services for Inter-Faith Ministries after more than 25 years.

“When I think about everything she’s done during the years to help the homeless and expand the services available for those most in need, I’m just in awe,” Carolyn Kell, marketing coordinator for Inter-Faith Ministries, said in an e-mail announcing Swank’s retirement.

‘Just treating symptoms’

During Swank’s initial interview for a job at Inter-Faith, the building used to assist the homeless was in such bad condition that officials told her to walk on the right side of the hallway or risk falling through the floor.

A quarter-century later, the organization now has two year-round homeless shelters and one winter homeless shelter. Inter-Faith has properties that provide transitional housing and apartments for formerly homeless people working to rebuild their lives.

Still more needs to be done, Swank said. Topping her priority list is a shelter that’s open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

In many ways, Swank said, she’s fighting the same battles she did when she started.

“When I started in 1990, my idea was to try to figure out how to end the problem” of homelessness, she said. “If we were serious about ending homelessness, we’d be looking at the root causes.

“I’ve said all along that homelessness is a symptom. I feel like we’ve just been treating symptoms.”

But it’s someone else’s turn to lead the fight.

“It’s time” to leave, said Swank, who’s 67.

She wants to spend more time with her longtime partner, who is in a Goddard nursing home, she said. She wants to rest and fish and figure out what to do next.

Inter-Faith officials on Friday night introduced a new program in Swank’s honor: Sandy’s Clinic, an outreach of the Guadalupe Clinic.

“It’s something that Sandy has been advocating for a long time — the need for more permanent medical care for our homeless,” Kell said. “We’re excited.”

Sandy’s Clinic will be an expansion for Guadalupe. Clinic staffers have provided care a couple of nights a week at the winter overflow shelter, but this will be the first permanent clinic with regular hours that will work primarily with the homeless.

The location and opening date have not yet been finalized, Kell said.

‘She humanized them’

Roxanne Moren, the chief financial officer for Inter-Faith, chokes up as she talks about Swank’s impact.

“Sandy lives in a world of third, fourth and fifth chances,” Moren said. “She doesn’t give up on people.”

But she also holds them accountable, Moren and others said.

“I have just a ton of respect for her,” Wendy Glick, executive director of Catholic Charities, said of Swank. “She really is the epitome of showing compassion for those that are so vulnerable.”

Glick and Swank worked next door to each other for many years, when Glick shepherded the Lord’s Diner at Central and Broadway and Swank was overseeing Inter-Faith Inn.

“She not only served the homeless, she educated so many people who have previously never encountered or served homeless individuals,” Glick said. “She humanized them.”

Bonnie Toombs, who chairs Inter-Faith’s board of directors and is the Respect Life Social Justice director for the Catholic Diocese of Wichita, called Swank “one of the most compassionate, dedicated persons that I’ve ever worked with.”

“She, without any effort at all, recognizes what I would call the God-given dignity of every person,” Toombs said. “She treats them with respect, and I think they sense that. I’ve seen that.

“She helps the people she works with … see the potential that they have, and she works really hard to help them reach that potential.”

That’s the lesson the tuba player taught her, Swank said.

“Most (homeless) people, they’re very capable of doing things — they’ve just been beaten down so bad,” she said. “A lot of folks, they see homeless people, they think of them as losers.

“The reality is they’re just people like you and me.”

‘They’ll kill you and eat you’

Sam Muyskens, who as executive director of Inter-Faith Ministries worked with Swank for 17 years, said she taught her staff to look for what made each homeless person special.

“What has been the most important things for them? What has given them meaning in life? What has given them a reason for living? That was important to Sandy,” Muyskens said.

Those questions let the homeless know they matter, he said. The answers can provide hope and a potential road map for turning their lives around.

Swank looked for ways to empower the homeless, not enable them, Muyskens said.

Swank’s approach to the homeless now could hardly be more different from her reaction to them as a child.

When she would visit her grandmother, she was told to stay away from the homeless men in the hollow by the railroad tracks across the street from the house because “they’ll kill you and eat you.”

She stayed away from them, she said, because she didn’t want to be eaten. What she didn’t know until later was that her grandmother had carved a big star on a tree to let the homeless in the area know she would give them a meal.

“She was actually pretty nice to them,” Swank said.

While Swank is quick to reflect on her grandmother’s example, Toombs said Swank reminds her of someone else: St. Teresa of Calcutta.

Toombs recalled a well-known quote from St. Teresa: “Not all of us can do great things, but we can do small things with great love.”

“She’s living this out,” Toombs said of Swank. “She’s special.”

Stan Finger: 316-268-6437, @StanFinger