By: Amy Geiszler-Jones | Photo by Jeff Tuttle
Editor’s note: This solutions journalism article was reported by The Journal as part of the Wichita Journalism Collaborative (WJC). The WJC is a partnership of 11 media and community partners, including The Journal.
Before its passing in 2012, Johnny’s Lunch Box in downtown Oklahoma City was a legendary gathering spot where the coat-and-tie crowd shared tables and banter with the blue-collar multitude. In the early 2000s, Dan Straughn often grabbed a bite there with fellow business and community leaders. The restaurant also provided a window into a perplexing local concern, given that it was located down the street from the main library, which was serving as a de facto day shelter for the homeless.
“You could just sit there and watch a parade of stereotypical homeless-looking people walk back and forth,” recalled Straughan, then vice president of the city’s United Way. “One of the oil and gas guys at the table said to us other guys, and it was all guys at the time: ‘This homeless issue never gets better. Every year we put money into the system with our foundations and charitable giving, and the numbers never get any better. Or maybe they do, but do we even know what the numbers are? We’re all smart business guys, we ought to be able to figure this out.’”
That conversation marked the beginning of a grassroots community effort to better coordinate homeless services and eventually create the Homeless Alliance, a one-stop center housing various agencies. Wichita appears to be reaching a similar crossroads.
Straughan has been executive director of the alliance since 2004 and over the years has overseen the 501 (c)(3) nonprofit’s growth, including the 2011 opening of its Westtown Homeless Resource Campus, which at its peak has provided office space for as many as 40 agencies that work with the homeless; a much-needed day shelter; and a small, dorm-type facility to house some of the chronically homeless. Over the years, the alliance has added case managers and created four employment programs as well.
One-stop campuses that consolidate services and provide housing options have been successful in other cities, but the Homeless Alliance and its Westtown campus are the closest geographically to Wichita and perhaps socially as well.
An effort headed by Wichita city officials is underway to create a similar campus in Wichita, which city officials are calling the Multi-Agency Center or MAC, according to Sally Stang, who has run Wichita’s Housing and Community Services Department since 2019. To bootstrap the facility, the city plans to use $5.5 million in federal COVID relief funds it received last year.
However, it will take millions more and additional community action before the center, which will include 90 housing units, becomes a reality, Stang says.
Last year, a community task force started meeting monthly to shepherd the effort along. Its responsibilities include taking stock of current attempts to deal with the issue, mapping out solutions and persuading residents that its plan will be workable and cost effective. To assist the project, the Wichita City Council approved a developer agreement in August with Petra, a local real estate advisory firm. Petra will be responsible for finding a location for the center, working with service partners and locating more funding.
Usually, homeless individuals and families need services from multiple agencies to address the factors that led to homelessness. For instance, veterans may wind up on the street because they suffer from PTSD and substance issues. Some people deal with mental health crises; others are reeling from the sting of unemployment.
Having the services of multiple agencies in one location increases the likelihood that clients will tap into all the resources they need to get back on their feet.
Creating the Oklahoma City campus
Over the years, the Homeless Alliance has gained the reputation as an all-important partner in helping address homelessness in the state’s largest city, according to Lindsay Cates, the homeless services’ strategy implementation manager.
When de-facto shelters, created by homeless individuals and well-meaning groups, started popping up in vacant buildings in Oklahoma City in the late 2000s, Straughan got a call from city officials, asking if the Homeless Alliance could find a solution.
“They said, ‘You’re working with the homeless, can you do something about these so-called shelters?’” Straughan recalls. The city had several nighttime shelters at the time, but its only day shelter had closed in the mid-1990s.
The opportunity to open a day shelter spurred the Homeless Alliance to also look at creating a one-stop resource center to bring staff from various agencies together under one roof.
In meetings with city officials, they found a place that would have the least not-in-my-backyard resistance: an industrial area located just off Pennsylvania Avenue and north of Interstate 40. Importantly, the city agreed to make sure public bus routes were extended to include the campus.
Two vacant warehouses were renovated at a cost of $2.7 million, one to house allied agencies and organizations and another to house the day shelter, which can accommodate up to 300 people. The Westtown Homeless Resource Campus opened in 2011, five years after it was envisioned.
Eventually, the resource center was filled with about 40 agencies that accepted an offer of free office space. However some agencies pulled back their staff during the pandemic, so currently about 20 agencies are located on the campus. Among the remaining agencies are the Department of Veterans Affairs, which runs a weekly primary care clinic for veterans; legal aid services, which are available twice weekly; and a variety of mental health providers.
In 2015, the alliance opened its 20-unit dorm-style Westtown Apartments on campus to provide 24/7 housing for the most vulnerable clients.
Since forming the campus, the Homeless Alliance has created four employment programs: a full-service flower shop; a shaved ice enterprise geared toward engaging younger people; street sales of the Curbside Chronicle newspaper, featuring stories by and about the homeless; and a custom, screen-printed shirt company.
One homeless person’s perspective
Bernard Turner had been hanging out at an Oklahoma City bus stop for about a week when he was told of a place where he could safely spend his days and find the services he needed to get a job and housing.
During the three weeks he had spent at the center’s day shelter, Turner began to have hope that he was on his way to getting off the streets.
He was using the shelter’s mail services, which provided him with an address so he could send and receive mail. He needed to get a replacement birth certificate and a Social Security card that were lost in a home fire back in Texas. Those documents could help him find a job. He might return to being a bus driver, he pondered aloud, as he had done when he lived in Texas.
With the help of what the Homeless Alliance calls its “intensive advocates” – the shelter’s case managers – Turner has signed up to get into housing too.
“It’s a slow process,” he acknowledges.
Every morning since Turner heard about the day shelter, he shows up before it opens at 6:30 a.m. (It opens 30 minutes earlier in cold weather.)
When the day shelter shuts down at 4 p.m., Turner has avoided going to a night shelter even though the city’s bus service can take him there. Instead, he’s been spending nights on one of the loading docks.
Instead of a day shelter, Wichita’s center is to include a 24/7 low-barrier shelter as well as permanent supportive housing units, Stang says.
“A low barrier shelter is quite different than a day shelter,” Stang says.
“A day shelter is just that: a shelter that provides minimal services and does not cover evening hours. A 24/7 low barrier shelter would offer assistance to those that often don’t meet guidelines for other shelters – for instance: to be off drugs, to receive training or rehab services while receiving assistance, etc. What we see is that some unhoused individuals are not ready to make these changes but that being out on the street perpetuates a vicious cycle, and that may prohibit them from receiving assistance or care and furthers nuisance behaviors.
“What we’ve found is that offering services and shelter without stipulations is more conducive to combating recidivism with homelessness or those who are homeless and experiencing mental health and/or substance abuse issues. We have also recognized that there is also a great need for a congregate shelter that operates 24/7 in our community; currently most access to any type of resource for the homeless is during your typical working hours.”
Growing a grassroots effort
Sustainable funding is a key issue in efforts to address homelessness.
That was something that never came together for Wichita’s previous attempt to create a one-stop center, says Deann Smith, the executive director for the United Methodist Open Door center, which opened in 2012 at 402 E. Second St.
The center, along with its day shelter, was designed to be a one-stop resource center – the vision of a task force appointed in 2006 by the city of Wichita and Sedgwick County. Fewer than a handful of other agencies are now located at the center.
Long-term funding to run the proposed Wichita center hasn’t been identified. For now, the city has to pull together a lot more than the $5.5 million in federal funds just to get the effort off the ground.
“That $5.5 million is just a sixth of what we’re needing,” says Stang. The city plans to seek such sources of funding as low-income housing tax credits, National Housing Trust Funds or possibly community development block funds to reach its $30 million goal. The city has until 2026 to use the $5.5 million in federal COVID funds.
In the early days of the Homeless Alliance in Oklahoma City, Straughan and volunteers agreed that they wouldn’t draw from the same group of donors or hold fundraising efforts such as charity events or golf tournaments that other agencies did.
“We didn’t want to be seen as picking their pockets,” Straughan says.
The alliance still operates on that principle, getting 90% or more of its total revenue each year from contributions and grants from major foundations. An influx of pandemic-related funds helped increase revenues by about 20%, Straughan estimates, so when that money disappears, he expects the organization’s operating budget will shrink. Some funding comes from federal and other sources.
The alliance operates with an annual budget of $10 million, according to Straughan, who oversaw staff growth that over two decades has reached 150.
In November 2022, the alliance announced its largest private gift in the organization’s history: a $2.5 million grant from the Bezos Day 1 Families Fund. According to its website, the fund gives leadership grants to organizations doing “compassionate, needle-moving work” to provide shelter and hunger support to address the immediate needs of young families.
Oklahoma City residents have shown they are also on board with their community’s homeless strategy by renewing a penny sales tax, Straughan says.
The most recent vote came in a special election in December 2019, when voters agreed to continue a program, now in its fourth iteration, that will allow the city to use the proceeds to invest $55.7 million in homelessness initiatives and another $44.6 million into mental health services from the estimated $1.1 billion in overall revenue. In the past, the city has used the tax money for other community improvements, such as developing the Bricktown area and public schools. Wichitans resoundingly defeated a citywide penny-on-the-dollar sales tax proposal in 2014 for community projects, and it has not been on the ballot since.
Asked how the Homeless Alliance has been able to be successful, Straughan says it likely has to do with the mindset of residents.
“We’re disaster-prone, right? We had the bombing (of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building), we had the major tornadoes, we had the wildfires. Our environment has taught us that no single agency, no single sector – government, faith, community or nonprofit agency – can address these big issues. We have learned from those experiences that we’ve all got to pull on the same rope. And so, you know, getting agencies to co-locate to the campus or getting the directors of all eight of Oklahoma City’s homeless shelters to meet monthly for lunch … that’s just the way things work here. It’s not because the Homeless Alliance has a secret sauce. I think it’s just Oklahoma City.”
While Oklahoma City’s navigation center was the result of a grassroots effort, in Wichita, city government has taken the lead in tackling homelessness.
As a part of those efforts, it has staffed its task force with elected officials and agency representatives as well as a landlord and an individual who has experienced homelessness.
The group is charged with studying the current situation and formulating recommendations. It’s also charged with helping residents see that reducing homelessness is a community responsibility. In a nod toward transparency, all of the task force presentations and meeting notes are posted online.
Several months ago, Mary Jones, the head of the Mental Health Association of South Central Kansas, wasn’t sure the city’s approach would work. Now that she’s part of a task force work group, she’s more hopeful about the process.
“One of the things that’s important about solving an issue that’s complex is that it can’t be left to the nonprofit community or the mental health sector. There’s a need for a leader, and I think government is the appropriate place to do that,” she says. “What’s really great about the (task force’s) subgroups is you’re seeing the business community, city government and county government, the nonprofit and service delivery organizations coming together. Quite frankly, that’s the only way we’re ever going to work. It has taken a different tone, at least in my mind, about it being all our responsibility to solve the problem.”
A note about numbers
Getting a bead on how many homeless people are within a community isn’t easy. One established datapoint is the annual point-in-time counts that tend to occur in January, with the data collected being reported to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Such a count is required for communities with the agency’s Continuum of Care programs, which provide money to nonprofits and local governments with the goal of ending homelessness.
But the count has limitations: It’s a one-night-only snapshot, so it can miss people who cycle in and out of homelessness. For example, it misses those who might have found a friend or relative to stay with for the night and it can miss unhoused people who may be in jail, treatment centers or other facilities.
The counts for Wichita, which has a population of nearly 393,000, have shown an upward trend. Wichita’s 2023 count was the highest recorded since 2011. Oklahoma City, which has a population of nearly 698,000, has seen some upward movement too. Neither city conducted counts in 2021 because of the pandemic.
Agencies that collect the point-in-time data often note shortcomings that might be present in the numbers. For example, Wichita officials say the 2023 count was likely higher due to better data collection methods.
The Homeless Alliance’s Dan Straughan has said that Oklahoma City’s 2022 numbers were likely artificially low because the data was collected in March, rather than January, the traditional time for the count.
Data is not yet available for the 2024 PIT counts, which were conducted in both cities on Jan. 25.
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This article was republished here with the permission of: KLC Journal