Wichita counted 42 homeless deaths last year, but the count is suspect

A memorial service in Wichita remembered at least 42 people who died last year while unhoused. But the county has no records to verify that number.

by Trace Salzbrenner

At least 42 homeless people died in Wichita in 2023. But the actual number could be bigger. 

Neither Sedgwick County nor Wichita keeps records of people who die without stable housing. 

“We simply don’t have metrics,” said Shelly Steadman, the director of the regional forensic center in Sedgwick County.

Without reliable data, it is harder to spot the trends and create the services that save unhoused people’s lives. 

In the meantime, the count of homeless deaths comes from Kathy Bowles, a nurse who volunteers with the nonprofit Advocates to End Chronic Homelessness. AECH tracks the number of people who die while homeless for a memorial service held at the end of every year since 2006.

Bowles collects the list from firsthand experience and information shared by other unhoused people and volunteers. 

While this year the count dropped from 49 to 42, the number of unhoused people who passed away was double that of previous years. 

“A few less than last year,” Bowles said. “Still, significantly more than years before that.” 

Before 2022, AECH estimated the number of people who passed while homeless in Wichita stayed around 20. 

She said that some of the increase the past two years could be attributed to getting better at knowing where to look. 

Every year the memorial service includes an “unknown” on the group’s list, based on the assumption it missed some deaths because of bad records, slow information channels or someone passing away without anyone to report their death. 

Unreliable numbers make comparisons difficult

It’s common for deaths of homeless people to go uncounted. 

In Des Moines, Iowa, a similar vigil to the one held by AECH listed names of 35 people who died while homeless. A ceremony in Omaha, Nebraska, remembered 113. Both lists are maintained by nonprofits — not local governments. 

Yet some local governments do keep track. 

Colorado’s El Paso County does a yearly review of deaths within the county that includes whether people were homeless. 

In 2022, that county coroner’s office found that 121 homeless people died, or 8% of the known unhoused population. AECH’s unofficial records from 2022 count 6% of Wichita’s known homeless population dying. 

But without verifiable data, it is harder to compare Wichita’s success at helping its homeless population to other communities. 

How tracking homeless people’s deaths could save lives in Wichita

This year Wichita, Sedgwick County and other interested groups formed a task force dedicated to lowering the number of unhoused people in the area by creating new resources, streamlining services and learning where the gaps in support exist. 

County Commissioner Ryan Baty sits on the task force and has been pushing for more solid data. 

“The task force has really galvanized itself and around the city of Wichita’s plan,” Baty said, “the plan of the multiagency center and what that will entail.” 

The multiagency center is a proposed plan to bring many of Wichita’s social services into one location. The city has already allocated $5.5 million to the project and has asked the state for more funding. 

Keeping track of the deaths aims to better deploy resources to save lives. 

For example, if a disproportionate number of deaths come from diabetes complications, then the new multiagency center could hire a diabetes specialist.

“If we know this is a situation, that there’s some elements that are disproportionate,” Baty said, “our future response can actually have an area of focus.” 

For instance, Bowles’ experience and her imperfect data suggest a rise in overdose deaths. 

Steadman said the Sedgwick County coroner’s office is looking into updating its records to better track people who pass away while homeless. 

Steadman said the coroner’s office used to equate unclaimed people with unhoused people in its records, but it now believes that doesn’t reflect the real situation. 

A spokesperson for the city of Wichita said that the coroner’s office also used to be its source for keeping track of unhoused deaths. 

Bowles hopes that better records will come with better communication. She said that many organizations in Wichita are trying to help, including the county and the city, but it can be hard to learn what data someone does and does not have. 

“Hopefully, soon we can move forward with (better data),” Bowles said. “And then more communication as they work on the multiagency center.”

This article was republished here with the permission of: The Beacon