Homelessness in Wichita is growing, but dollars to fund shelters aren’t keeping up

By Celia Hack

The largest public funding source for shelters comes from the federal government, but it hasn’t grown at the same rate as inflation or the number of people experiencing homelessness.

At about 4 p.m. at Union Rescue Mission, men start lining up outside the front door. It’s check-in time.

“Everybody that’s coming in right now is just our overnight guests,” said Cody Stelling, the program manager who helps run the shelter. “We give them a bed. We give them a meal, pillow, blanket. We give them shower supplies, if they need a shower.”

One of those guests is James. He came to Union Rescue Mission in April, after he was released from a hospital and had nowhere to go. Now, he’s part of a longer-term, Christian housing program at Union Rescue Mission.

For James, who struggles with depression and anxiety, the shelter was life-altering.

“I would … tell people – never give up hope because your saving grace might be somewhere right around the corner,” he said. “I’m glad I waited long enough to get this done.

But as the number of unhoused people in Wichita grows, many shelters are struggling to keep their doors open to people like James. In 2023, the number of people experiencing homelessness in Wichita was the highest on record. And federal dollars – the largest public funding source for shelters – aren’t keeping up.

The Salvation Army’s emergency shelter closed in August, citing funding. HumanKind Ministries had to work with the city of Wichita to find a new winter shelter this year because last year’s building couldn’t handle the growing number of people in need. And Union Rescue Mission, which doesn’t take public dollars, has seen an 8% decrease in donations since last year, said its CEO, Doug Nolte.

Cody Stelling is the discipleship and program manager at Union Rescue Mission, where he helps run the overnight shelter.

“The biggest wake up call we had was the first of April in 2023, when we had over 109 men show up,” said Nolte, who plans to step down as CEO next month. “That was almost a little over double what we had ever seen in the month of April, and our costs skyrocketed.

“To have that spike caused us to go, ‘What happens if we see more people?’ Well, we had to make some contingency plans.”

Neither the city of Wichita, Sedgwick County nor the state of Kansas currently include money for shelter operations in their annual budgets. Now, state and local officials are discussing whether that needs to change.

“We can’t hide from these challenges,” said commissioner Ryan Baty in a Sedgwick County commission meeting. “We can’t turn our face from these problems and the homelessness issue.

“It is not compassionate to let people suffer in this community that are homeless. … It’s also not compassionate to allow our downtown residents, our downtown businesses … to leave them be to deal with this situation on their own.”

‘Not a lot of funding in the arena of homelessness’

The federal Emergency Solutions Grant that Wichita gets to pay for shelter operations grew just 14 percent from 2012 to 2023 – from about $223,000 to around $255,000.

It failed to keep up with inflation as well as the population experiencing homelessness, which grew about 27% in the same period. Providers point to higher rents and the end of COVID assistance to explain the rising number of people without housing.

“This is the one federal grant that HUD provides the city of Wichita to truly flexible funding to address homelessness, and it’s $255,000 a year,” said Sally Stang, the city of Wichita’s housing and community services director, while speaking on a panel this fall.

The dollars are split between the city and up to seven nonprofits, some which estimate their annual shelter operation costs at upwards of a million dollars. This year’s winter shelter alone – which is only open for five months – is expected to cost nearly $900,000.

“So there is not a lot of funding in the arena of homelessness,” Stang said. “There really is not.”

LeAnne Miller is with Catholic Charities, which runs St. Anthony’s Family Shelter. It received $20,000 from the federal grant in 2022. Miller said the grant typically covers the cost of utilities. It dries up in months.

“At St. Anthony, one of our biggest challenges is being able to hire talented staff and remain operational 24/7,” Miller said. “And do the work that needs to be done when we receive little funding from the federal government.”

The amount of money Wichita gets from the Emergency Solutions Grant is decided using a federal government formula based on things like population and poverty rates. In an emailed statement to KMUW, Rep. Ron Estes’ office wrote that it had shared additional grant opportunities with local leaders, particularly those that address drug addiction and mental health.

“Rep. Estes continues to believe that we should find ways to move people from being homeless to sustainable housing, which is even more challenging as the cost of rent, homeownership and goods has risen substantially over the last three years,” his office wrote.

Other funding sources available, but limited

Shelters typically rely on private funding sources, like the United Way, churches or individual donors. COVID pandemic funding did provide a temporary cash infusion, but providers say it’s mostly gone.

The federal government also allots Wichita about $2.8 million dollars annually to put toward ending homelessness and helping with housing needs like rental assistance. But none of it can be used for emergency shelters, said Cole Schnieders, who works with the United Way of the Plains, the lead agency that administers that grant.

These dollars are “centered on the philosophy of housing first,” Schnieders said. That’s a research-backed method that focuses on getting people a place to live before working through mental health or substance use issues.

But some providers feel the federal government’s push toward housing first has left emergency shelters behind.

“Housing first – the model is good,” said Miller, of Catholic Charities. “But sometimes there's maybe a step before housing first, and there's not necessarily the dollars there from public sources.”

The Department of Housing and Urban Development wrote in a statement that it doesn’t mandate housing first practices in the Emergency Solutions Grant program.

Local, state officials consider options

Without enough federal funding, local elected officials are now wondering whether they need to use their own budgets to pay for shelters.

The topic has riled Wichita and Sedgwick County before. In 2021, HumanKind Ministries asked the county and city for funding for its emergency winter shelter. The local governments acquiesced – and Wichita gave more in 2022 – but not without dissent at the county level.

The question resurfaced again this October after it became clear a new building for an emergency winter shelter was needed. The crisis brought together state, county and city leaders.

“The emergency shelter this winter, I think that’s a big deal,” said Kansas state Rep. Nick Hoheisel, of Wichita. “And I would love to try to figure out a plan on, if we need to kick in some state dollars, if we need to kick in county dollars, city dollars – how are we going to make this work?”

Kansas state legislators and nonprofit leaders met with staff and elected officials from Sedgwick County and the city of Wichita to discuss plans for an emergency winter shelter Friday.

In November, the city committed nearly $700,000 in federal COVID relief funds to HumanKind to operate the winter shelter. Sedgwick County then chipped in $200,000 from its general fund – though this decision, too, was not without its critics.

“I will vote for this today. I’m very concerned, though, on our direction of what we’re doing today,” said commissioner Jim Howell at the commission meeting, regarding the funding. “We will have long-term challenges if we continue to think that the county’s going to be equal partners or significant partners in the issue of homeless services to this community.”

But the winter shelter is only one piece of a much grander vision Wichita has to address homelessness. The city is planning to build a new “one-stop shop” for unhoused people, with a shelter, affordable rental units and a center that has social services.

The city is taking on part of the cost to operate this new multi-agency center, committing to half a million dollars in 2025. But council members say more is needed, and they’re looking to others for support.

Plus, the city will be back to an unacceptable “status quo” when the winter shelter closes at the end of March, said Baty, the county commissioner. A funding plan for shelter past April and for the long-term operations of the new multi-agency center is a necessity, he added.

“How do we fund this thing? How do we sustain the funding?” Baty said. “I think this is a conversation that those in this room are going to have to have with our constituents. How important is this to this community?”

This article was republished here with the permission of: KMUW