Wichita’s homeless population grows to highest number in 12 years

by Polly Basore Wenzl

What is driving Wichita’s homeless population to record numbers? 

This year’s homeless count recorded 702 homeless individuals, the highest number recorded by point-in-time counts going back to 2011. Homelessness is defined as living in shelters, transitional housing or conditions not meant for habitation, including on the streets. This definition does not include people who may be living in motels or “couch surfing” by staying with friends.

The United Way’s 2023 point-in-time count was conducted over a 24-hour period beginning on Jan. 25, 2023. This data is collected to guide local efforts to provide housing to the homeless. Wichita has a Homelessness Task Force that meets monthly to determine what is causing the problem and how to better address it. 

Several factors are at play, according to Matt Lowe, the United Way of the Plains’ community impact manager for basic needs.

“Though I can’t speak to pre-COVID numbers, there is no doubt that the number of unhoused people in our community is continuing to increase due to rising housing and utility costs,” Lowe said.

“There are literally dozens of unhoused people in our community right now holding housing vouchers that they can’t use. They either can’t find landlords who will rent to people with vouchers or the price of rent is outside what the voucher will allow.

“This keeps them stuck in a cycle of homelessness and, where we used to see more of an ebb and flow of people entering and exiting homelessness, people now are entering homelessness and having a harder time getting out.”

What trends show up in homeless count?

These topics are being explored by the homelessness task force and were the topic of panel discussions at the April 19 Greater Wichita Housing Conference, where the new data was released. 

The 2023 count is 1.7% higher than last year’s count of 690, an increase that Cole Schnieders, manager of United Way’s Continuum of Care, attributes chiefly to improved data-collection methods.

Source: United Way of Plains, U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development • Graphic by The Beacon

*2021 count artificially low due to social distancing during COVID-19 affecting count and shelter capacities

Data collected during the count found most of Wichita’s unhoused are unaccompanied white males over the age of 25. But the total spectrum of homeless people includes women and children, adults younger than 25, people older than 65, transgender individuals, and people who are Black, Hispanic, Asian and indigenous. 

Black individuals are disproportionately represented, accounting for 25% of the homeless population but just 10% of Wichita’s total population. Females account for 29% and children younger than 18 account for 18%.

Wichita is working to get to “functional zero,” meaning the number of people becoming newly homeless does not exceed the resources available to house them. “We want homelessness to be rare, brief and nonrecurring,” said Schnieders, with United Way’s Continuum of Care, which coordinates local agencies serving the homeless and compliance with federal housing grants. 

According to the new data, the average period of homelessness was 41 days during 2022. The number of homeless people provided housing or helped to maintain housing was 1,168.

Schnieders said a number of data points are not currently tabulated but would be valuable to know: the total number of housing-insecure persons kept out of homelessness by local efforts, the total number of caseworkers assisting the homeless, the number of available affordable housing units, the amount of available utility assistance, the amount of behavioral health services available, the extent of transportation supports and the total amount of money being spent on homelessness beyond federal grants.

Collecting that data will depend on greater collaboration across the community, he said.