To the surprise of absolutely no one and the disappointment of many, the Wichita City Council voted 7-0 to approve a $685,000 reallocation of Covid recovery funds to help pay for the operation of an emergency winter shelter for the homeless on Opportunity Drive.
HumanKind Ministries, which will operate the shelter will contribute another $200,000 and the city has asked the county to contribute to the project as well.
The vote came after the council spent hours listening to the concerns of people in the community, who one after another reiterated their concerns about locating the shelter next door to the TOPS daycare and pre-school center, down the street from the Boys and the Girls Club and only a few blocks away from Gordon Parks Academy, a K-8 magnet school.
Wichita Housing Director Sally Stang said the city has been searching for a suitable property for a winter shelter after HumanKind notified them that they could only add 100 men and 40 women to its shelters.
“Our highest number of people seeking shelter last year was 188,” explained Mayor Brandon Whipple. “Without another option, we would face seeing at least 48 people turned away. Those people would have literally nowhere to go. And the reality is, we know that at least some of them would freeze to death.”
City officials said they considered eight sites including two city-owned recreation centers, none of which could be readied in time for this winter. The biggest problems were a lack of space to create two separate sleeping quarters for men and women and a lack of bathroom facilities.
Vice Mayor Mike Hohiesel, who made the motion to bring the shelter to northeast Wichita, did include an assurance that it would be in operation no longer than March 31, 2024.
There were also assurances that there would be security cameras, guards, additional lighting and that staff would make sure that trash was picked up and the area kept clean and that loitering was not allowed.
Appeals to compassion
Again and again, city officials and some speakers appealed to objectors to take a more compassionate approach to the issue, recognizing that most of the unhoused are not destitute by choice even though their own struggles with mental health or addiction frequently contribute to their problems.
Hohiesel spoke of a brother who is homeless and the 7-year-old niece he is providing for because her father can’t.
Joseph Shepherd, who heads up the 501c3 organization Lead for America in Kansas, spoke passionately in favor of approving the shelter, sharing memories of his own childhood homelessness and the experience of having to brush his teeth and wash his face in a McDonald’s restaurant before heading to school.
Aujunae Bennett, president of the Milair Neighborhood Association was having none of it.
“Again and again, you show blatant disrespect for our community. Zip code 67214 was the most impoverished in the state. You talk about compassion. Well where is your compassion for us?”
Cornelia Stevens, executive director of the TOPS early learning center, said her biggest concern is the protection of the children and teachers in her care and the fear parents might have about the safety of their children.
“What happens when the shelter is full and they turn people away? Where do they go? You have already said you can’t make people leave if they are on public property and there are no shelter beds,” she questioned. “The city owns the property my building sits on. Is that public property?
“Public and private donors have $4 million invested in TOPS. We have been here 17 years and that could all be lost in 22 weeks if parents decide they want to take their children elsewhere.”
People won’t be in shelter 24-7
Teresa Lovelady, executive director of HealthCore Clinic, just a block east of the proposed shelter said it is unrealistic to expect people seeking shelter in the building will remain inside 24-7.
“That amounts to imprisonment,” she said. “That’s not realistic. So, yes, they are going to be leaving the shelter and walking around and sitting on the benches nearby.”
She called it “ironic” that the community is getting another homeless shelter before it gets a grocery store and called for stakeholder groups to meet routinely with officials to talk about prevention services and how to move forward.
“I think the city officials should apologize to this community for how this happened,” she said. “I think there needs to be a comprehensive plan and a way to engage the community so the people here are not always the last to know.”
Concern About Services Available
Dr. Maryon Habtemariam, a professor in the Wichita State University School of Nursing, spoke eloquently about her experiences as a volunteer at the HumanKind shelters and the need to see the unhoused as people who need to be seen and provided the things they need to survive.
“Sometimes it’s a pair of socks, treatment for a cut or a scrape on feet or hands. Sometimes, it’s just a hug and a word of understanding,” she said.
And she agreed it is unrealistic to expect them to be invisible in the neighborhood.
“You aren’t going to keep them in the shelter night and day. They are going to walk to try to find things they need,” she said.
But she questioned the services available within walking distance of the proposed shelter.
“How about they walk up the street to WSU?” she asked. “Is that going to be OK? There’s a lot of places to eat and plenty of water on campus. There are lots of bathrooms. Is everybody going to be OK with them using those facilities?”
She ended her remarks with a challenge.
“I’ll be volunteering in a homeless shelter on Nov. 16,” she said. “Will you be there? Will you join me?”