HumanKind’s emergency winter shelter won’t open this year. Officials say new plan is in the works.

KMUW | By Celia Hack

Updated at 5:58 p.m. on October 4th to include comments from City Council member Maggie Ballard and County Commissioner Ryan Baty.

HumanKind, a nonprofit serving people experiencing homelessness, will not operate its emergency winter shelter on North Market this November through March

And just one month before the shelter usually opens, it’s not yet clear what will take its place. But city and county officials say they are close to releasing an alternative plan

The emergency winter shelter has historically been located at 841 N. Market. But HumanKind says that facility won’t hold the shelter this year.

“This is an infrastructure issue,” Halaina Woolsey, a spokesperson for HumanKind, wrote in an email. “As the number of those seeking emergency winter shelter has continued to climb, HumanKind’s facility capacity is no longer viable.”

Over the past five years, the number of individuals experiencing homelessness in Wichita grew by 18%, HumanKind said in its news release. Last year, 991 individuals were served in the emergency winter shelter, according to HumanKind.

The announcement of the shelter’s closure sparked concern amongst those who work with unhoused people. Kathy Bowles is a nurse who volunteers with various homeless service providers.

“People will die this winter if there is no place for them to go,” Bowles wrote in a text to KMUW.

A spokesperson with the city of Wichita wrote that it learned of HumanKind’s decision not to operate its emergency winter shelter on Aug. 30 and is working “to ensure that our unhoused population has options on where to seek shelter this winter.”

Maggie Ballard, a City Council member, emphasized that Wichita has a plan in place to replace the emergency shelter but cannot make it public yet.

“We’re very close to having a new plan — where potentially for the next couple years, we will know where people are going to go, what we’re going to do, and be able to take more people,” Ballard said. “…I don’t want it to look like at one of the most critical times when it gets cold, we’re dropping the ball. Because we’re not, and we’ve all been talking about this for weeks and weeks and weeks.”

Ballard said the city has looked at several different buildings and considered purchasing a building. She said the city has been in discussions with Sedgwick County, business owners and nonprofits about a plan.

“I just want to make it clear that doing nothing is not an option,” Ballard said.

“We’ll figure it out. I feel confident about this.”

Ryan Baty, a Sedgwick County commissioner who is on the Homelessness Task Force with Ballard, echoed her comments.

“I’m confident that we will have solutions and will be able to unveil some solutions in the next 30, 45 days,” Baty said. “This is a crisis and there’s people in need. If we have a winter or bouts of the winter like we’ve had in the last couple of years, people’s lives will be in danger and that’s just not acceptable in this community.”

HumanKind is involved in searching for other community options for winter shelter, according to a joint statement from Scott Eilert, the chair of HumanKind’s board, and Wichita city manager Robert Layton.

“HumanKind has been in discussions with community partners to discover the best approach to address the growing needs for a winter months response and beyond,” the statement read.

The emergency winter shelter is the only no-barrier option in the region, according to HumanKind’s website. The shelter also provides meals and basic medical care.

“There is no other provider doing this particular work through the season,” LaTasha St. Arnault, the CEO and president of HumanKind, said at a Wichita City Council meeting in November 2021. “No barrier … means that anybody who walks through our doors we will serve, including those suffering from behavioral health and substance abuse disorders.

“We believe this is a lifesaving service to our community.”

In 2021 and 2022, the nonprofit requested money from the city to operate its emergency winter shelter. In both years, the city provided COVID relief funds. But these dollars are no longer available.

In a November 2022 council meeting, Layton emphasized that discussions with homeless providers will need to take place as the COVID relief runs out.

“There’s an issue of responsibility and who should be bearing the funding for the emergency shelter,” Layton said. “Not that I’m saying the city shouldn’t have a role, but we need to have a much more thorough discussion about that.”

The announcement of the winter shelter’s closure follows the closing of Salvation Army’s shelter this August, which had about 10% of the city’s shelter beds and served primarily women. Many of the shelters were already at capacity before Salvation Army’s shelter stopped operating.

Some homeless advocates like Bowles are concerned that the closure of the emergency winter shelter will worsen an already-dire situation.

And others are confused why the conversation about a plan for the future is happening publicly just a month before the winter shelter is supposed to open. Jonni Rich Tennant, who conducts outreach to unhoused people, said she understands that the emergency winter shelter has infrastructure challenges.

“There’s some issues, and it becomes a safety issue when you’re stacking more and more and more and more people there,” Tennant said.

“But this has been an ongoing problem. This is nothing new. So I’m not sure why all of a sudden this is an issue now, in October. … How are they going to spread the word to everybody?”

This article was updated October 5th at 3:15 p.m. to accurately reflect how many people HumanKind’s emergency winter shelter served in the 2022/23 winter season.

Celia Hack is a general assignment reporter for KMUW. Before KMUW, she worked at The Wichita Beacon covering local government and as a freelancer for The Shawnee Mission Post and the Kansas Leadership Center’s The Journal. She is originally from Westwood, Kansas, but Wichita is her home now.

This article was republished here with the permission of: KMUW