Outrage wasn’t just seething beneath the surface, it was outright boiling over as the Wichita African-American Council of Elders held a press conference to gauge the response of the community to a Wichita City Council announcement that a temporary winter homeless shelter will be created in the building on Opportunity Drive that, until recently, was home of the Fundamental Learning Center.

“What angers me the most is that this was done with the community not at the table. Nobody asked what we thought about it. We were just told that the decision had been made,” said former Councilwoman Lavonta Willliams.

Those present at the Monday morning meeting were unanimous that the location is far from acceptable, both for the community and for the homeless population.

“I’m very concerned about whether this is actually temporary,” said NAACP Secretary Elaine Guillory. “I own property at 22nd and Minnesota and at 17th and Piatt. And I’m very concerned that this is not temporary.” 

Maryon Habtemariam, who is part of the WSU School of Nursing and a volunteer with Humankind, said it is not about a lack of compassion for the homeless. It is rather about a location that is not suitable for the service proposed.

“It is no secret that many of the homeless have addiction issues and mental health issues,” she said. “They need services to help them get back on their feet. This is simply a way to warehouse them and that’s not what they need.”

The building proposed for the shelter was left vacant after the Fundamental Learning Center moved to a new location. But Opportunity Drive is home to the TOPS early learning center and the Boys and Girls Club of South Central Kansas. And Gordon Parks Academy, a K-8 Elementary Magnet School is only a couple of blocks away.

That puts this shelter in the midst of an area where there are hundreds of children coming and going and playing outside.

Northeast Milair Neighborhood Association President Aujanae Bennett also expressed doubt that the shelter would truly be temporary.

“The City Council is voting on Tuesday (Nov. 7) on $825,000 for getting the building ready. You have to really be skeptical they are willing to spend that kind of money on a shelter that will only be open until March 24.”

Dr. William Polite lives in the neighborhood (21st and Erie). He said he has talked with the people camping on Broadway and they do not want to move. They need easy access to public transportation and they like being in the proximity of needed services, including meals at the Lord’s Diner.

Karen Cayce spoke of her compassion for the homeless, even as she suggested they need more services than can be supplied at the Opportunity Drive location. 

At the end of the day, the group agreed that the first goal is to stop the shelter from coming to Opportunity Drive. But they conceded that it  might be impossible to stop it in this year’s time frame. 

“If it has to be here this winter, then it has to be temporary,” James said.

The group also made donations on the spot to fund retaining an attorney to fight the decision. 

On Tuesday, the Council will vote on final approval to spend $875,000 readying and running the shelter until March 24 with Humankind as the hands-on operator. Several members of the group are preparing to speak in opposition to the proposed shelter.

That meeting begins at 9 a.m. Tuesday, Nov. 7.

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P.J. Griekspoor is a semi-retired veteran journalist with 55 years experience in writing and editing in Missouri, Iowa, Minnesota, North Carolina and Wichita.  She spent 18 years at the Wichita Eagle...

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