Homeless in Naftzger Park: ‘This is our world’

Allen Stoker starts most mornings at Naftzger Memorial Park, which he calls his office. He charges his phone, looks for jobs, picks up some trash around the park and then heads off on a job search.

He comes back in the afternoon, sitting down at one of the tables to prepare for the next day before leaving to find a place to sleep.

“This was a quiet place where I could come to get my act together to try to get out of this situation,” said Stoker, who is homeless. “I’m not going to say this is Shangri-La here. It’s not. There’s a lot of problems in the park, but there are also a lot of good people.”

Stoker, who had an apartment for four years before a car accident put him in debt and back on the street, estimates he spends about six hours in Naftzger Park each day.

He and others have found a haven and a home in the small, downtown park that features trees, a gazebo and a naturalistic water feature.

Drea Mosley recently moved into a house, but still comes to the park to see her friends. When she was homeless, she spent more time there, sometimes sleeping in the park. When Mosley’s mother was pregnant with her and homeless, “she found so much family in this park,” Mosley said.

Now, Stoker, Mosley and others in downtown Wichita are afraid for the future of the park.

The city plans to spend about $1.5 million to rebuild the park before the NCAA basketball tournament comes to Wichita in March 2018. The City Council recently expanded a special taxing district downtown to raise the money to pay for it.

The request for qualifications said “the existing park will be removed and replaced” and that the city is “seeking an innovative urban design solution which will enable users to actively interact with the surrounding redevelopment.”

A preliminary concept presented to the City Council showed a flat field of artificial turf, although design options will be presented at open houses this week.

“I don’t believe the park should be shut down and I don’t believe they should block it off for homeless people, because at the end of the day this is the only place that they got,” Mosley said.

Developers have said the public’s input will be taken into account in the park’s design.

Park and Recreation director Troy Houtman said city employees have spoken with people at Naftzger Park to learn how they use it.

“I tell the folks they can have every opportunity share the park and use the park,” Houtman said. “This is just an opportunity to enhance the park for everybody’s use.”

A place that provides

On Saturdays and Sundays, Naftzger Park is buzzing. Open Door’s Homeless Resource Center, where people can spend time, take showers, store belongings and connect with services, isn’t open on the weekends. Because of that, many people go to the park, where church groups distribute meals.

The park serves as a central location for distribution of food, hygiene products and clothing, said several people who come to the park often.

Only a handful of people regularly sleep in the park, but many enjoy the shade throughout the day.

“My kids, I don’t know how many times my kids’ve been provided for in this park, for real, because I wasn’t able to provide for them,” Mosley said. In the park, people have given her clothes, diapers and baby’s formula, she said.

For years a group of women have come one night a week to serve what Stoker calls the best meals he’s had in his life. “Those ladies cook for us exactly like they cook for their grandchildren.”

Stoker said there has to be a place for people to gather and help the homeless.

“If not, people are going to get into the neighborhoods and they’re going to start stealing to support themselves, and then somebody’s going to get killed – somebody’s going to say you’re taking something out of my yard, I’m going to shoot you,” Stoker said. “If you run these people out of downtown, they’re going to go into the neighborhoods.”

A home

While homeless, Mosley met the people she considers her family in the park. She met her ex-husband there. She also met her pastor in the park, and says Naftzger is where she found God. She’s seen baptisms in a horse trough.

When her brother died, his memorial service was held in the park.

Some people go to church or a bar to socialize, Stoker said. He and others go to Naftzger Park.

“This is more than a park,” Stoker said. “This is our world.”

After eating dinner at the Lord’s Diner, many people head to the park to spend time with friends during the evening.

“This is our porch to kick back on the swing and drink a beer – so what?” Stoker said. “They don’t have a porch to sit and drink a beer.”

Last week, Mosley, Stoker and another homeless man sat at one of the tables in the park. A dog on a leash ran toward them, wagging its tail.

“Can I ask you a question, ma’am?” Stoker called to the woman walking the dog. “Are you scared to come over here and walk your dog?”

Pam Dawson, who lives next to the park and walks her dog Bentley there several times a day, said “No, not at all.”

“We love this park,” Dawson said. “It’s a beautiful piece of nature in the middle of town.”

As discussions have swirled about the future of Naftzger Park, Stoker says he’s heard people referring to the homeless in the park as “scary.”

Yes, there are people in the park who cause problems. In the past there have been stabbings, and some in the park are addicted to alcohol and drugs.

In 2016, one simple battery and one aggravated assault were reported in the park, according to the Wichita Police Department. Through Aug. 7 this year, one rape, one aggravated battery and two simple batteries have been reported in the park.

Stoker says the people who commit crimes and cause problems give a bad name to others in the park.

“We all get grouped together like we’re some lower life form,” Stoker said. “There are a lot of really smart, intelligent people out here that have had some bad breaks.”

The future

The city has held meetings to discuss the future of the park. But several people said the times were inconvenient for people who are homeless. One of the meetings occurred at 5:30 p.m., around when the Lord’s Diner serves dinner. The other started at 7:30 a.m., the busiest time for Open Door.

Houtman, Park and Recreation director, said he was made aware of those concerns in the meetings.

The next round of meetings will involve the architect reporting back with possible designs. Those open houses to hear and provide input on design options are at the same times as the last meetings: 5:30-7:30 p.m. Aug. 10 and 7:30-9:30 a.m. Aug. 11.

Stoker did attend the last meetings, missing dinner in the process. Attending helped him understand the city’s mindset better, he said, but he’s still skeptical.

“I am actually for improving the park, which is what they say they’re going to do,” Stoker said. “They say they don’t want to get rid of the homeless, but we’ve heard that so many times that we’re really not willing to believe that yet.”

In the past, the city has tried to force the homeless out of the park by limiting hours, charging church groups to serve food and adding hand rests to benches to make it difficult to lie down.

The renovated Naftzger Park will have to meet the needs of everyone downtown, Houtman said. Currently, there are plenty of misconceptions about the park: That it will be turned into a parking lot (which is not the case) and that it is only being changed because of the NCAA, Houtman said.

“Actually there’s a lot of benefits for all of downtown to upgrade this park and make it usable for everybody,” he said.

Yet as downtown develops, some of the homeless say they’re being pushed out. One homeless man said that as downtown is being revitalized, the homeless and the low-income increasingly don’t fit in.

Jeff Fluhr, president of the Greater Wichita Partnership and Downtown Wichita, said the master plan for downtown was developed with input from hundreds of Wichitans and that things like affordable housing are something they will continue to work on.

“You hear common messages from diverse groups. Then what you begin to do is work with the design team to say how can that be realized,” Fluhr said. “Downtown is that area of our city that everyone has ownership in.”

Stoker and Mosley said there are plenty of ways the park could be renovated to accommodate homeless people.

They would like to keep the water, tables and the trees, but have restrooms and better water fountains added. Other ideas homeless people would enjoy include a playground for children, bike racks and cameras to monitor crime, they said.

Stoker said he’d love to see a truck full of shovels, rakes and brooms pulling up at the park before renovation starts. Perhaps the City could pay the homeless to work on the park during the renovation, he said. And maybe that work could continue after the park is renovated.

“We want work, give us work,” Stoker said. “This is our yard. Let us mow it.”

Katherine Burgess: 316-268-6400, @KathsBurgess

Related stories from Wichita Eagle