Wichita’s homeless population is declining

The Wichita Eagle

The Mount at Catholic Charities has closed, and for what officials say is the best possible reason: the former convent that offered transitional housing for homeless women and families simply isn’t needed any more.

“Our program at the Mount was a success,” said Wendy Glick, executive director of Catholic Charities. “We should be excited, and we were excited” to see the number of applicants drop so low. “Ultimately, we want to be out of a job.”

While some types of homelessness are increasing – most notably among young people – a number of local programs say they are seeing sharp decreases in other sectors of the homeless population.

The most significant drops have come in the number of veterans and the chronically homeless, service providers say.

Data collected in the annual point-in-time homeless counts shows chronic homelessness has dropped 42 percent from 2015 to 2017. The count logged 92 chronically homeless people in 2015, but just 39 this year.

In the four years since the Wichita Police Department’s Homeless Outreach Team was created, police also have noticed a drop in chronic homeless. That’s defined as those who have been homeless for at least a year or have been homeless four times in the past three years.

“The way I look at it, we’re doing a good job,” said Officer Nate Schwiethale, a member of the HOT team. “It’s not just the HOT team, it’s the whole system working together in getting them off the street.”

Coordinated efforts

Much of the success can be attributed to the continuum of care approach mandated by the Department of Housing and Urban Development and administered locally by the United Way of the Plains.

Agencies that provide services to the homeless meet monthly to review cases, assessing needs and then matching the individual or family needs with the programs that can most effectively assist them.

The mission is “to help find solutions to get homeless people housed and off the streets,” said Becky Rogers, who works on continuum of care for the United Way of the Plains.

The federal government has emphasized helping homeless veterans and homeless families in recent years, Glick said.

It’s worked: Veterans made up 17 percent of the average nightly crowd at the Union Rescue Mission in 2012. By last year, veterans represented just 6 percent of the average nightly crowd.

“By breaking it down to manageable segments and concentrating the dollars, they’ve been able to make a difference,” Glick said. “It’s really working.”

New options for homeless

When The Mount at Catholic Charities opened in October 2015 at the Sisters of St. Joseph convent on East Lincoln, local shelters for homeless families and victims of domestic violence were full and demand was growing.

Just a year ago, all 38 rooms at The Mount were occupied, Glick said. In addition, both the Anthony Family Shelter’s 13 rooms and the Harbor House — which has 12 rooms but can offer space for up to 60 people — were also full.

But since then, more options for homeless residents have become available:

▪ StepStone at Bluffview Place opened in south Wichita, offering 28 apartments for survivors of abuse. That’s in addition to 11 single-family homes throughout Wichita and six duplexes near Bluffview Place, so tenants can more easily access assistance and services available at the complex.

▪ United Methodist Open Door’s Family Rapid Re-housing program is helping families with children find housing.

▪ At the start of the year, at least 200 low-income housing vouchers were granted to Wichita by the federal government, which are being used to help people who are homeless move into apartments.

“All these things are good,” Glick said. “That’s always been our goal...to get people stabilized and into permanent housing.”

That success is also reflected at the Union Rescue Mission, a shelter for homeless men in north Wichita. In 2012, an average of 143 men stayed at the mission each night, said Denny Bender, executive director of the shelter.

Through the first five months of this year, that number had fallen to 104 men a night. The 2017 average will almost certainly climb because colder weather brings more homeless to the shelter, Bender said.

A continuing need

While the process of coordinating and targeting resources has been in place now for several years, Glick said, the impact has been most noticeable since the start of this year. Numbers at the shelters are always low in January, she said, because tax refunds allow people who might otherwise be homeless get hotel rooms.

But the need continued to be low as February arrived, then March.

“There were just a lot of opportunities for homeless families and people needing permanent housing to go access that,” Glick said.

It might be easy to think that, with all of this progress, homelessness may one day be a thing of the past in Wichita. But local officials and service providers know that simply won’t happen.

While the numbers of chronic homeless are declining, officials say, the number of new homeless is not. At the Union Rescue Mission, for instance, the number of first-time users on any given night averaged 49 in 2013. By last year, that average had increased 12 percent, to 55 first-timers a night.

Wichita also is seeing increases in the number of homeless teens and 20-somethings as well, Glick said.

Groups plan to focus on helping young homeless and homeless families next, said Luella Sanders of the United Way of the Plains.

Homeless-service providers say the number of “situational homelessness” – people who lose their residences due to changes in circumstances, such as a loss of a job or medical bills – has remained steady.

“If they’re living on a minimum-wage income and something happens to their car, that makes it difficult to pay their bills,” said Christen Sampamurthy, who oversees Inter-Faith Ministries’ three homeless shelters and the case managers at three low-income apartment buildings.

Studies have shown, however, that it’s a second or third stroke of misfortune – such as a major illness after a vehicle breaks down – that proves too much to overcome, said Garland Egerton, Inter-Faith’s executive director.

Wichita always will see significant numbers of homeless people, Egerton and others said, because cities around Kansas know there are services here to assist them.

“We ask them, ‘How did you get here?’ ‘A one-way bus ticket,’” Egerton said. “Because we have services. Which puts more of a strain on this community.”

Some service providers say any reduction in local homeless numbers is merely a dip in a cycle.

Other homeless service providers are monitoring how significantly The Mount’s closure will impact local capacity for those in need of temporary shelter. StepStone, for example, has seen an increase in requests for help from families since The Mount closed, program director Dung Kimble said.

Glick acknowledged that “we don’t have that answer” on how to respond should the need surge again.

“We are committed to putting ourselves in the middle of those conversations,” she said of Catholic Charities, which marks its 75th anniversary in Wichita next year.

What’s next

In less than two years of operation, The Mount provided housing for more than 530 people, including 225 children. The 182 families who went to The Mount stayed an average of 52 days. More than 75 percent left for permanent housing.

The convent is still owned by the Congregation of St. Joseph. Jerry Carley, chief executive officer and president of CSJ Initiatives, which manages The Mount, said the sisters are pleased to have been able to help more than 500 people.

“They saw this as a need” to help families, Carley said. “It was very successful.”

The future of the building that housed The Mount is unclear.

“What’s next?” Carley asked. “That’s yet to be determined.”

Stan Finger: 316-268-6437, @StanFinger