By Casey Loving | The Wichita Eagle
Leaders from across the community plan to work together to make sure all homeless veterans in the Wichita area have housing by the end of next year.
“Homelessness is a complex social issue, and it will take a collective community response to bring it to functional zero,” said Pete Nájera, president and CEO of United Way of the Plains, at a news conference to announce the collaboration between the city of Wichita, Sedgwick County, Wichita Veterans Affairs and United Way of the Plains.
“…Other communities in this country have done it, and I believe in Wichita’s ability to do it as well,” he said. “No one can outdo Wichita and our entrepreneurial spirit.”
Roughly 20,000 veterans reside in Wichita, Nájera said, and Wichita is the home of McConnell Air Force Base.
By the last count, 32 veterans are now without housing.
“They have stepped up as volunteers to protect our freedoms and our American way of life,” Nájera said. “I think it’s only reasonable and maybe a responsibility for all of us to step up and help these veterans make a transition back into our community and be productive members of our society.”
Veterans occupy 208 of the community’s 350 permanent supportive housing units; they also occupy 25 of 140 rapid rehousing spaces, Nájera said.
“We are way too good of a community to allow our veterans to remain unhoused,” said Mayor Brandon Whipple.
The collaboration group intends to identify and reach out to veterans experiencing homelessness and connect them with resources to help them find affordable housing and avoid losing housing in the future.
PROGRESS HOUSING VETERANS
Functional zero will occur when the number of homeless veterans no longer exceeds the amount of permanent housing units they can be provided, according to Abel Frederic, vice president for community impact at United Way of the Plains.
Once functional zero is achieved, it will be maintained by ensuring veterans rarely enter periods of homelessness and, if they do, are quickly and permanently assisted out of the situation.
“Everyone plays a role in making this critical goal achievable: our government, our non-profits, our elected officials, our service providers, our landlords, our database managers, our care coordinators and especially our law enforcement,” Frederic said.
Sally Stang, director of Housing and Community Services for the city of Wichita, said she thinks the community can reach functional zero by the end of the year.
“We have to prove that we didn’t just come together, get these people housed and then, as people come in, they fall into homelessness,” she said. “We’re gonna have to prove that we’ve got a system in play that, as new veterans enter into homelessness, it’s brief and non reoccurring and that we have systems in place to quickly move them into housing.”
Chandra Miller, interim medical director of VA Wichita health care, said the group will need to be adapt to the constantly changing needs and members of Wichita’s homeless population.
She said the VA has made progress in addressing the homeless veteran population locally and nationwide.
“Last year, nationwide, VA housed more than 40 thousand homeless veterans, exceeding our goal by more than 6%,” she said. “Locally, we contributed to that effort by providing housing for 115 veterans experiencing homelessness, exceeding our goal for the year by nearly 12%. Since 2020, the number of veterans experiencing homelessness has fallen by 11%. Obviously, there’s still a lot of work to do.”
HOW YOU CAN HELP VETERANS
Stang emphasized that there are many ways individuals can help non-profits and governments combat homelessness. Several, such as donating money, furniture or items for move-in kits, can be found on wichita.gov/homesforheroes.
Stang also said volunteers can help with the next VA Stand Down, an event that provides food, clothes, health screenings and other assistance to veterans in need.
“Other needed resources include household goods that can help make a housing unit into a home, as well as moving assistance, job training, groceries and more,” she said. “The community can assist in many ways beyond donating needed goods. They can help us identify other veterans we haven’t yet identified that are experiencing homelessness, they can volunteer at the next VA Stand Down that’s gonna happen on September 8 and they can participate in the annual point and time count that’s occurring this next January 2024.”
Stang said wichita.gov/homesforheroes will be kept up to date with statistics and ways people can help the collaborative effort. The website lists the National Homeless Veteran Hotline (1-877-424-3838) for veterans who are at risk or without a home.
“Of course, this is an effort where we really the assistance from the community, right? We need to identify more housing units for folks. We need to make sure that we have the resources to make those housing units a home,” Stang said.
FINDING STRATEGIES THAT WORK
After veterans are housed, focus will shift to a new group that needs housing.
“We understand that we must address each unhoused population with strategies that works for those groups,” Frederic said. “We will address those populations one by one, we will ensure that we have good data to know that everyone is accounted for, and we will implement strategies that serve all those populations.”
Sedgwick County Commission Chair Pete Meitzner said the county plans to open a veterans treatment court in September as another means of assistance for struggling veterans.
“Now, when there’s a little bit of a crime that can be manageable, it’s gonna go to a veterans court for more treatment-related stuff than going to jail or serving time,” he said.
Casey Loving is a summer intern for The Eagle. Loving grew up in Wichita and attends Missouri State University in Springfield, Missouri. There, he serves as an editor for the school paper while pursuing a major in communication studies and minors in mathematics, computer science and film.
This article was republished here with the permission of: The Wichita Eagle