Eagle editorial: Care for least fortunate

Homelessness is no small-scale local concern.
Homelessness is no small-scale local concern.

Wichita can take pride in the public and private local efforts to counter homelessness, a challenge given welcome attention in Mayor Carl Brewer’s State of the City address last week. With the area’s economic recovery still lagging the state’s and nation’s, this is no time to weaken the commitment to aiding those who lack shelter.

The results of the latest United Way of the Plains Point-in-Time Homeless Count are pending, but the scale of Thursday’s service event at Century II showed again that homelessness is no small-scale local concern.

Nearly 400 volunteers and service representatives helped on site, as individuals were interviewed and offered basics including haircuts, socks, health screenings and hygiene products. At the same time, volunteers tried to fill out the count by canvassing shelters and places where the homeless are known to congregate. Last year’s survey identified 538 people, compared with 550 in 2012 and 634 in 2011; counts have been conducted six of the past seven years.

The annual count helps gauge the homeless population for official purposes, such as qualifying the community for federal funding. More important, it’s a prime time to connect homeless individuals to service providers ready to help.

As confirmed by The Eagle’s article on the event, “homeless” can mean many things and stem from a number of circumstances, including domestic violence, addiction, mental and physical illness and dysfunctional family relationships along with severe financial hardship. Some of those without housing have jobs. Some have children.

Define “homeless” as the U.S. Department of Education does, to include the poor families who are doubling up, and the scope of the local challenge is magnified: Wichita school district officials recently said they had identified 2,182 homeless schoolchildren, 33 more than last year. In another sobering measure of the local need, the Kansas Food Bank was providing 1,392 Wichita children with weekly food backpacks as of Jan. 27, among the 6,656 schoolchildren it was helping in 58 Kansas counties.

That program is one among many in the private sector dedicated to helping those whose basic needs are unmet. The Inter-Faith Ministries Souper Bowl on Friday was another, raising money to help the homeless and hungry.

But the public sector’s efforts also must remain strong, via the city of Wichita and Sedgwick County. In his annual speech highlighting the city’s progress and City Hall’s goals, the mayor offered deserved praise to the Wichita Police Department’s Homeless Outreach Team for its effective handling of 911 calls related to the homeless. The HOT officers “focus on steering them into shelters, homes and ultimately jobs rather than jail,” he said, crediting the team with helping place 23 in full-time jobs, reuniting 36 with family and friends, and otherwise supporting 400 among the homeless population.

Brewer also touted the city’s affordable housing program for providing 18 families with down payment and closing costs for first homes, helping 44 families become self-sufficient and moving more than 180 veterans into Section 8 housing.

“Wichita, we must stay committed to finding suitable, affordable housing for residents in need,” Brewer said.

Churches, businesses, foundations, nonprofit groups and citizens should join the mayor in that commitment, demonstrating their capacity to care for their least-fortunate neighbors.

For the editorial board, Rhonda Holman