The Wichita City Council will vote Dec. 6 on a plan to use a $5.5 million grant from the Federal Department of Housing and Urban Development to reduce homelessness and increase housing stability.

The money is part of the city’s American Rescue Plan funding aimed at reducing the pandemic’s impact on cities’ and states’ ability to pay for vital public services.

After months of study and meeting with more than 20 organizations that deal with the city’s homeless population  to help determine the most critical needs, the city’s Housing and Community Services division and its consultant, Development Strategies, are ready to make a recommendation to the council.

Their proposal calls for the city to use the funds to develop a single project that they hope would include a non-congregate shelter, affordable housing units and a one-stop Navigation Center, designed to help those in need “navigate” and connect with available and helpful services.

A door that locks

Wichita currently has only congregate shelters, which are facilities with group sleeping arrangements. Think beds lined up across a room.   

A non-congregate shelter would provide “guests” separate rooms with doors that lock. Other cities have converted empty  or transient hotel buildings into non congregation shelters.

“We hear over and over that single women are afraid for their safety in congregate shelters,” a Homeless Outreach Team member with the Wichita Police Department said at a public hearing on the proposed project. 

Sally Stang, City of Wichita Housing and Community Services director, said she visualizes a building with an easy-to-access Navigation Center on the ground level with non-congregate shelter rooms and affordable permanent apartments on the upper floors.

If funding allows, the goal would be to also include some affordable housing units in the project, either as apartments or possibly tiny homes.  

Proposals Sought 

As envisioned, the city would acquire a site, develop the facility and maintain ownership. But it would seek a developer/general contractor partner  to complete the project construction and renovations and management partners to operate the affordable housing units and the non-congregate shelter. At this point, the plan is for the city to operate the Navigation Center. The city doesn’t have a site in mind at this time.  The plan is to put out requests for proposals for a developer or development team, who might have a property, or options on a property.  The best result would be for the City to receive several development proposals to choose from that come close to or meet their desired objectives, within their allotted budget.  

Holding on to alternatives

If the development does not become feasible within a year, a Notice of Funding Opportunity will  be issued to make the funds available to low-barrier shelter, affordable housing units or supportive services.  The decision would then be to see how the money could best be used to meet the city’s homeless housing objectives by providing funding to existing, or new, service providers. 

Stang said the city wants to spend the ARP grant on something that will have a major impact on helping confront the homeless problem in the city.

“We looked at this one-time money as a gift that enables us to do something that really has a positive impact,” she said. “If this one project thing doesn’t work for whatever reason, we can back off and try again.”

What is needed most

Surveys show that the number of people experiencing homelessness in Wichita on any given day is about 690, but nearly 15% of all residents in the city are living in poverty and in some zip codes, at least 20% are below the federal poverty level. 

Add in the fact that 12% of the city’s households are headed by single mothers and the numbers  indicate the threat of homelessness looms over far more people.

The city doesn’t currently have enough emergency shelter beds to meet the needs of people who are already homeless. The city also has short transitional housing units, supportive units and affordable housing units.  In addition, there are not enough landlords willing to participate in the Section 8 housing program which would make more rental units available to low income households.

The mental health issue

On a given day, as many as 76% of the homeless are suffering mental health issues.That is a critical problem that has to be solved before homeless programs can move people into permanent housing and utilize the aid they need to manage essential bills for rent and utilities.

Of the more than 20 organizations that deal with homelessness, almost every one listed a shortage of case managers and a shortage of housing units as top concerns. And almost everyone agreed that a lack of access to mental health services is putting a lot of people on the streets.

“There is a need for additional staffing for long-term case management, social work, housing navigators, outreach and similar positions,” the city report reads. “Most providers of case management have open positions. There are not enough case managers or housing navigators to help make full use of available housing vouchers and there is a lack of available affordable housing units.”

There’s also a need to get people ready for independent living.

“There is a need to expand mental health and substance abuse services, particularly in-patient beds and there are gaps in the critical care system for mental health challenges,” the report reads. “There are not enough qualified counselors and case managers, especially to provide consistent long-term care.

Public comments wanted

Public comment on the plan is open until midnight on Monday, Dec. 5 and the public will also have a chance to make in-person comments during the regular meeting of the council on Dec. 6. That meeting will start at 9 a.m.