How one woman pulled her family out of homelessness during an affordable housing shortage

The nonprofits Amy Frey relied on for shelter during her family’s bout of homelessness say they are vastly overwhelmed by the amount of need in Wichita.

KMUW | By Celia Hack

On a frigid day in January, Amy Frey is perusing a massive warehouse near 37th and Hydraulic for furniture options to complete her new apartment.

“Do I get to pick out a bed?” she asks a volunteer at His Helping Hands, the nonprofit she’s working with to pick up household items for free.

One of Frey’s two daughters has been sleeping on an air mattress for more than a month, ever since the trio moved out of homelessness into a new apartment.

The answer is yes – and she’ll get a box spring, too.

“Box spring and a mattress – woo hoo!” Frey laughs.

The new bed is a welcome reprieve for her daughter, though Frey says she herself will still have to sleep on an air mattress.

In Wichita and across the country, the number of people experiencing homelessness hit record highs in 2023. Local and national service providers have pointed to a combination of factors causing this, including a shortage of affordable housing, inflation and the expiration of COVID assistance.

Frey, though, was able to defy this trend. Using a mix of government and nonprofit resources – as well as sheer will and a lot of luck – she was able to get her own housing in December.

The process was not short: Frey says she and her daughters spent four months in a shelter or hotel room. And the process was not easy: She said her past eviction deterred some landlords, and many of the apartments that accepted government rental assistance were in areas she didn’t feel safe.

The process is also not attainable for everyone: Both nonprofits she relied on say they turn away far more people than their resources allow them to help.

But Frey, a single mom, was able to achieve it.

“I just want to let everybody else know that that is possible to get back on your feet, through community resourcing and to navigate housing and stuff like that,” Frey said. “Just keep at it. … Small steps lead to big steps. It’s better to take small steps than no steps.”

Entering homelessness

Frey perusing mattresses at His Helping Hands’ warehouse.

Frey’s two daughters are like most kids. The oldest, 17-year-old Taylor, likes playing Call of Duty and basketball and J. Cole’s music. The youngest, 7-year-old A.J., watches a lot of cartoons and, no matter which location she’s living in, populates the room with stuffed animals.

Also, not unlike most kids, they want their own space. So when Frey returned to Wichita in the fall of 2022 after some time living out of state, she knew she needed a more permanent solution than living with her daughters’ in a family member’s home.

Rent, though, was the major obstacle. The apartments she wanted required tenants to have an income triple the rent. For a single mom who was cleaning houses at the time, Frey said the math didn’t add up.

“For the amount of money I’d be able to afford, it’s not in the greatest areas of Wichita,” Frey said.

Frey was one of many households struggling to find affordable, quality housing in the past several years. In 2022, nearly half of Wichita renters were “cost-burdened” by housing, spending more than 30% of their income on rent and utilities, according to a recent report by the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies.

In June 2023, Frey said her living situation became untenable and she needed to move out of her family’s house. For one to two weeks before she left, she said she called Catholic Charities’ St. Anthony Family Shelter every day. The shelter works without a waitlist on a first come, first serve basis, so that was the best way to get a spot.

The strategy worked. In early July, a room opened up. She and her daughters moved in.

Frey is in the minority. The shelter only has 13 rooms, which puts a hard limit on how many families can be served, said Ann Nash, program director for St. Anthony. Between October 2023 and January 2024, the shelter turned away 67 families each month, on average – about 161 children a month.

“We need more bed spaces, more homeless shelters for families, because we just don’t have enough,” Nash said.

Nash said last summer’s closure of the Salvation Army emergency shelter for women and families has only worsened the problem.

Section 8 and safety first

Right before she moved into the shelter, Frey decided to apply for a Section 8 housing voucher, a form of government rental assistance for low-income people.

The city issued her a voucher on Aug. 1, according to documents Frey provided. That meant she could look for two-bedroom apartments for up to $790.

Her timeline – receiving a voucher in less than two months – is much faster than many applicants experience, Nash said.

“Right now, if you sign up for Section 8, you’re looking at two to three years before you’re even going to get a Section 8 house,” Nash said.

The average wait time in Wichita to get a housing voucher from 2020 to 2023 was 381 days, according to a document from the city of Wichita. That’s a national trend: a study the city of Wichita cited in an email to KMUW found the majority of housing authorities around the country have waiting lists of more than a year due to inadequate funding.

The voucher propelled Frey’s journey forward, allowing her to start looking for apartments with a reliable income source in hand. Throughout August and September, she started making calls around town.

She has an eviction on her record, which disqualified her from some options. But Frey said several complexes looked past it when she told them upfront.

Picking an apartment was a bigger challenge. Frey doesn’t have a car, so all potential units had to be on a bus route.

She said she visited five to eight options. Then came the application fees, which Frey said typically cost between $25 and $65.

“I had to really do my due diligence and my homework and … kind of research things, make sure it was somewhere that I wanted to be,” Frey said. “… Cause it starts to add up, you know, $25 to $65 for application fee.”

Safety presented another obstacle: Frey said she worried about her children in many of the locations that accepted her voucher. That’s why she turned down a complex at Broadway and Pawnee.

“I just didn’t see that (as) suitable for my family,” Frey said. “Because I got girls and I got children. I don’t want them to walk out the door and see someone smoking on a pipe or … shooting up or anything.”

Safety was the issue with the second apartment complex she considered, too, Frey said. She had signed a lease for a unit near Lincoln and Woodlawn, and Catholic Charities helped her pay a deposit. But there was a break-in at the unit soon before she moved in. Frey backed out, worried about bringing her kids to the location.

“One thing I cannot ever get back: the safety … of my family in that home,” Frey said.

In mid-October, St. Anthony required her to find another place to stay.

The shelter is meant to be a 30 day option but will allow residents to stay for longer if they’re actively looking for housing. Because Frey had a housing option – the apartment that got broken into – Nash said the shelter asked her to move out.

Once again, Frey went looking for a safety net to catch her as she fell. A case manager at Catholic Charities told her about a nonprofit known as Children’s 1st, and Frey called. It would pay for a temporary hotel while she found an apartment.

Frey outside the Motel 6 her family stayed at for more than a month, while searching for an apartment and waiting for their lease to start.

Life at the Motel 6

On a November afternoon in the Motel 6, A.J. broke into a pack of ramen for a snack, sitting on a bed filled with piles of folded laundry. Lady Gaga’s Bad Romance momentarily played from her phone.

The hotel room is crammed with the lives of Frey and her two daughters. Flintstones gummies, a kid’s unicorn backpack and Lysol wipes are piled atop the table under the TV.

Despite the cramped space, the hotel was a step up for her family, Frey said.

The room had a mini fridge and was within walking distance of a grocery store. Frey could cook in the room using a hot plate and even grill meat on a mini-George Foreman.

“Living in a motel, coming from the shelter, there’s more freedom here,” Frey said. “We can come and go. We don’t have to have a curfew. … We can have our own food. They can eat whatever they want to eat whenever they want to eat it.”

Children’s 1st started paying for homeless families to stay in hotels in 2023, because there’s not many shelter options for parents with kids.

“Families have a lot to lose,” said Kathleen Webb, the nonprofit’s executive director. “They have their children to lose, right? And so, if you’re not stable in a house, you could lose your children. And so that’s why I like working with families. They’re very motivated.”

Webb said the hotel program, which is funded based on donations and grants, often fills a gap between families’ stay at a shelter and the time their lease begins. But it can hardly help everyone who needs it.

“Every week, we have about four families that need help, either homeless or at risk of being homeless,” Webb said. “And of those four families, we can basically help one family.”

Nash said most people who move out of the shelter don’t end up in a hotel.

“(Frey) got, like, really blessed that she found that service,” Nash said. “Because there’s nobody right now that has the funds to pay for a hotel.”

Frey said she started to feel more confident about permanent housing when she was approved for an apartment complex out east that met all her criteria: it accepted her past evictions and Section 8 voucher, passed the inspection process, felt safe and was located near a bus route and schools.

Her move-in date was Dec. 1.

“Everything is looking up,” Frey said, from inside the motel room. She said thanks to God.

“I ask God every day – I get up and I pray and I ask him just to guide me throughout my day,” Frey said. “… I don’t want to be experiencing any more hardship than what I’ve already been going through.”

Moving in

The December move-in day came in time for the family to celebrate Christmas at their new home.

Frey made 68 chicken wings and a chocolate cake for her daughters.

A.J. got a twin bed from Wichita Public Schools’ McKinney Vento program, which helps kids experiencing housing instability. Frey found a free kitchen table with four chairs. She hung a calendar with kittens on it on the kitchen wall. And she’s on the lookout for a cheap car, so her family doesn’t have to walk or ride the bus.

“It’s been really peaceful and quiet,” Frey said. “Don’t really have to worry about too much. You know, I don’t have to pay rent. I’ve never said that in all my life.”

Frey has a new job at Dillons and enough financial flexibility to consider going back to school.

“I’m going to look into getting my GED while I got this time on my hands,” Frey said. “… To show my kids that … GED don’t have no age discrepancy. You can get it whenever you want to get it.”

Frey may still be lacking a bed for herself. But when she returned to the apartment from His Helping Hands with a full mattress and frame for her oldest daughter, a small smile crept over Taylor’s face.

“Finally got the room we deserved,” Taylor said. “Things are really coming together.”

This article was produced by KMUW as part of the Wichita Journalism Collaborative (WJC), a partnership of 11 media and community partners, including KMUW.

The WJC is embarking on 18 months of dedicated coverage to shed light on the pressing issue of affordable housing in Wichita.

This article was republished here with the permission of: KMUW