Eagle editorial: Homeless of all ages

The stereotype of homelessness – male, mature – is just one part of the reality in Wichita. As more teens, families and senior citizens find themselves without shelter, resources or hope, the community will be challenged to respond appropriately.

The unexpected faces among the homeless have turned up a lot lately in the pages of The Eagle.

When charities invited the homeless to Century II recently as part of the United Way of the Plains’ latest effort to tally the population, some of those in line for food, haircuts and referrals had babies and preschoolers along. A volunteer canvasser recalled that last winter they had encountered a family of eight sleeping and surviving in a car.

And in the Sunday Eagle, Deb Gruver wrote about the growing numbers of elderly turning to shelters for help, including a 78-year-old woman in a wheelchair who’d been left on the sidewalk of the Inter-Faith Inn by family members who didn’t even bother to ask if the shelter had room. One 78-year-old Korean War veteran, also in a wheelchair, recently came to Inter-Faith Ministries’ Warming Souls Winter Shelter by cab from the veterans hospital. The winter shelter has served more than a dozen people older than 62 this year, compared with five for all of last year – and demographics make it likely the numbers of elderly homeless will only grow.

To Wichita’s credit, it’s already adapting to the need at the other end of the age spectrum.

In last month’s State of the City address, Mayor Carl Brewer highlighted how the Wichita Children’s Home drop-in center for homeless youths, Opportunity Zone, had recorded more than 1,300 visits in its first year. He also said plans are under way for a five-bed emergency shelter pilot program to “get us one step closer toward the vital goal of eliminating homelessness among Wichita’s youth.”

Inter-Faith Ministries has a new program, fueled by a recent $2,000 grant from Sodexo, aimed at involving youths in addressing hunger and homelessness among children.

The community also responded generously after The Eagle’s Roy Wenzl reported last month that USD 259 officials had found more than 1,800 homeless children among the 50,600 enrolled this school year, most of them counted as homeless by the U.S. Department of Education because they are doubling up with other families.

Working with each other and local nonprofits and churches, Wichita and Sedgwick County have made great progress fighting chronic and temporary homelessness in recent years, including by helping Open Door get its one-stop center up and running at 402 E. Second St. The Wichita Police Department also has a new Homeless Outreach Team working to connect homeless individuals with appropriate services.

But until the economy improves dramatically, private individuals and groups as well as government will need to be more aggressive and creative in helping Wichita’s homeless population – in all its heartbreaking facets.

For the editorial board, Rhonda Holman