Providers say Wichita needs hundreds more shelter beds this winter, but plans are still in flux

By Celia Hack

After several options fell through, the city of Wichita says it has a building that could shelter 250 people. It’s still unclear who will pay to operate it.

Wichita still needs hundreds of emergency shelter beds to meet this winter’s demand for homeless services, providers said at a meeting Friday.

Local government officials and state legislators have coalesced around the issue after the nonprofit HumanKind Ministries announced Oct. 4 that it wouldn’t open its emergency winter shelter this year. It has since reversed that decision, stating that the shelter at 841 N. Market could operate at a reduced capacity and take up to 100 men.

But the city still needs a “code blue plan,” said LaTasha St. Arnault, president/CEO of HumanKind Ministries – a building that won’t turn away anyone seeking shelter, especially during the coldest nights of the year.

“In years past, we would have been by definition that because we were accepting anyone, and we never turned anyone away,” St. Arnault said. “Based on the new information, the city of Wichita or Sedgwick County does not have a code blue or an emergency response plan.”

That means the city needs somewhere between 184 to 217 more shelter beds this winter on top of the beds HumanKind is able to offer, said Cole Schnieders, of the United Way of the Plains. St. Arnault estimates the city needs 250 total emergency winter beds.

Wichita’s Housing Director Sally Stang said at the meeting that the city recently identified a building it owns as a potential shelter. It could sleep about 250 people.

But she said the city isn’t ready to share a location yet, after several other options it considered fell through.

“We spent the better part of two months looking for a site so that we would have enough space so that we wouldn’t ever have to turn anyone away,” Stang said. “And I’ll tell you, it’s been a lot of high hopes and heartbreaks. We have brought in architects, we’ve looked at buildings and it’s been not successful all along – until this week.”

Stang and St. Arnault said the hope is that HumanKind would operate the city building as the sole emergency winter shelter, essentially replacing HumanKind’s previous shelter at 841 N. Market. That way, HumanKind and other providers visiting the shelter would only have to staff one building.

“If we could do a single site, it’s going to make it much more manageable, and, honestly, it will cost less,” St. Arnault said.

But she added that the nonprofit is still preparing the 100-bed emergency shelter for Nov. 15 in case the city’s plan falls through.

Other providers said Wichita won’t have enough shelter beds if HumanKind only operates one emergency winter shelter – at the city’s building – instead of both.

“Based off of HumanKind only operating the city shelter and not operating the shelter on their campus, we’d still have a gap of about 100 beds,” Schnieders said.

The shelter the city is proposing in its own building would cost around $700,000 to operate from November through March. St. Arnault said HumanKind could provide $200,000.

“It sounds like we are hundreds of thousands of dollars short of where we need to be,” said county commissioner David Dennis. “That’s a hurdle we need to overcome in the very near future.”

Stang said there are some federal funds for the shelter, but not enough to cover operating costs. No elected officials from the city, county or state promised any money for the shelter at Friday’s meeting, but several asked HumanKind to provide a specific funding request.

“Passing a bill to get money for appropriations at the soonest wouldn’t happen until April. So, it’s hard to come up with any kind of money,” said state representative Henry Helgerson.

But he added that the state still has federal COVID relief funds, which could be an option.

How did we get here?

HumanKind’s emergency winter shelter held 188 people on its peak night last year.

When inspectors from the city’s fire department visited the shelter this summer, St. Arnault said they were concerned by that number.

“Internally, we’d been talking about it, too,” St. Arnault said. “If there happened to be a fire, what does that look like and can everyone get out of the building safely?”

St. Arnault said the nonprofit initially thought it would need to install an expensive fire suppression system to bring the building to code.

“After further investigation and further conversations, we were told that we were not required to have a fire suppression,” St. Arnault said. “But we would have to limit our occupancy so we can safely operate this building.”

An email from Wichita’s fire department to a HumanKind employee on Sept. 28 – six days before the nonprofit announced it wouldn’t open the shelter this year – confirms this. The email said the shelter could sleep up to 114 people safely with a few small fixes to the building. But if it wanted to increase its capacity, it would need to undertake more major projects like hiring an architectural firm and a fire protection contractor for a sprinkler system.

This presented a dilemma for HumanKind, which spent about $150,000 of its own dollars to fund the emergency shelter last year, St. Arnault wrote in an email to KMUW.

“Should we invest in upgrades and continue to underwrite the extra $150,000 to operate a shelter that still wouldn’t accommodate the emergency capacity we anticipate?” St. Arnault wrote. “Or should we attempt to find other options that could address not only the short-term emergency, but also the long-term needs of homelessness and housing?

“In hindsight, all the ups and downs were blessings in disguise,” she added. “This situation has fostered a much broader discussion with elected officials and prompted a greater awareness of the need our community faces.”

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