What happened inside Wichita’s emergency winter homeless shelter

While the operators, HumanKind Ministries, deem it an imperfect success, some clients say they experienced shortcomings. Questions remain about what the future holds as the shelter closes March 31, but a city official indicates the shelter would be at a different location next year.

by Stefania Lugli/The Journal

Theron had two options: he could luck it out surviving on Wichita’s streets as a disabled senior or seek refuge behind the four walls of an emergency homeless shelter.

He chose the latter, becoming one of hundreds of homeless people who stayed at Wichita’s emergency shelter this winter season. The shelter, operating on East 21st street, was designed as a momentary stop for those who’ve fallen on hard times and need protection from the harsh outside elements.

HumanKind Ministries, the operators of the shelter, says that this year’s conditions were imperfect but ultimately successful. Yet several shelter clients and volunteers say the shelter fell short in offering some basic life and health amenities necessary to ensure a sense of dignity and agency in its patrons.

The shelter was jointly funded by the nonprofit, the city of Wichita and Sedgwick County. Together, they dedicated $1 million to its five-month operation: $200,000 came from Sedgwick County, $200,000 came from HumanKind and $685,054 was from the city. The city’s contribution came from American Rescue Plan funds. 

Wichita’s sole, no-barrier 24/7 shelter will close on March 31, ending a sometimes contentious chapter in the community’s efforts to meet the needs of the homeless. What the future holds for next winter remains unresolved, beyond an acknowledgment from city officials that the emergency shelter won’t be operated in the same location in the future. 

Theron, 71, has been a patron since the shelter opened in late November. He expresses sincere gratitude for the temporary resource, but questions how its less-than-ideal conditions were the result of such a public investment. 

“I underscore it all with: I wouldn’t have any other place to go. I’d be outside,” he says. “But I don’t know what they’ve done with all of this money.”

Theron lived at HumanKind’s previous winter shelters – when two were run simultaneously, one for men and another for women – and says he was appalled by this year’s conditions.

It’s not clear how many more people experienced the same things as Theron. But others shared similar experiences. 

The shortcomings described by four shelter clients and two volunteer nurses, among others, include just one toilet for sometimes more than 100 people, tiny meals, a lack of staffing and the danger of fights. While the rules of staying in the shelter are outlined for those who stay there in advance, several clients say they were enforced in ways that didn’t make sense under the circumstances. One nurse alleges that “people are treated like inmates instead of patrons.”

Ryan Bond, a HumanKind board member, says the claims from shelter clients were “heartbreaking” to learn about. But he chooses to elevate the good the organization has been able to do, considering the very real, almost-happened alternative – no shelter at all.

“When I think about what could have been, which was really close to having no solution for emergency winter shelter, and what we’ve been able to get with the Fundamental Learning Center, it’s awesome,” he says, referring to the building’s former name. “That doesn’t mean it isn’t without challenge. That doesn’t mean that there are going to be people that stay there that aren’t unhappy.”

Bond characterizes the shelter as a “crisis intervention,” but also says the effort was its largest operation ever. Through mid-March, the emergency winter shelter operated by HumanKind had served 1,020 unduplicated clients, up from the 984 it served for the entire season in 2022-23 and 846 in 2021-22.

There’s widespread agreement among stakeholders that Wichita needs to offer a 24/7 no-barriers emergency shelter to save the lives of homeless people who have nowhere else to go during the coldest winter months.

The shelter opened later than its traditional Nov. 1 start date after HumanKind announced it wouldn’t be offering the shelter it had previously operated on North Market. The building had capacity issues and couldn’t serve the community’s growing homeless population.

City officials loaned a city-owned building for the purpose near 21st and Grove at the former Fundamental Learning Center. But the location in the historically Black neighborhood faced fierce opposition from community members, who were concerned about the shelter’s proximity to child care facilities and saw it as another burden being added to an already disadvantaged neighborhood.

Sally Stang, the city’s director of housing and community services, acknowledged at a City Council meeting that the location wasn’t ideal, but it was ultimately chosen for its capacity, bathroom facilities and lack of need for renovations.

At least 20 locations for the emergency winter shelter were considered before settling on the former Fundamental Learning Center, according to Stang and HumanKind.

City officials justified the location, in part, by saying there was no other choice for providing life-saving shelter over the winter. Inside the building, the people who depended on it were glad to be out of the worst of the elements. But the experience of being there left them feeling dehumanized at times.

‘Nothing’s perfect’

The first time Theron fell into homelessness happened in the summer of 2022 when he got behind on rent.

Like many of the shelter’s clients, his homelessness is not something he’s dealt with forever. Of the 325 clients served from Jan. 21 to Feb. 3, just 48 were categorized as chronically homeless, according to reports HumanKind filed with the city. 

Theron is a disabled senior with a hip replacement gone bad, forcing him to rely on a walker for mobility and volunteer-run medical care for pain relief. 

He’s also urinated on himself while waiting in line to use the bathroom, an incident The Journal was able to confirm with a volunteer nurse and through text messages. The reason? Waiting in a half-hour long line for the one bathroom available, even though the facility has other bathrooms.

“I wet myself more than once standing in line, waiting. It’s ridiculous,” Theron says. 

The common area where clients hang out during the day has just one bathroom. Other bathrooms in the sleeping quarters and a set of stalls on the north side of the building are off-limits to clients.

Maryon Habtemariam, a registered nurse and associate professor at Wichita State University’s School of Nursing, regularly volunteers at the winter shelter and confirms that clients have been restricted to one bathroom when not in their bunks. Habtemariam is a former HumanKind board member whose work has been spotlighted by the organization. She was also one of the voices opposing the emergency winter shelter’s location in a historically Black neighborhood. 

“Theron urinated on himself twice and they said, ‘Well, that’s just how it happens. Nothing we can do. It’s done,’” she says. 

Theron says clients often ask staff members to walk them to the other stalls but are repeatedly told no, a common word in the shelter, he says. The reason given: “We’re short staffed.” 

Erica Davis, the chief program officer for HumanKind, confirmed that there are usually six staff members “if not more” at any given time, not including security, volunteers or housing case managers. 

Clients and volunteers say that the six to eight staff members that routinely work a shift are not enough. While the shelter isn’t filled every night to its full 250-bed capacity, they say the facility needed more staffing.

Davis believes the shelter has adequate funding – the hourly rate for many staffers is $11 per hour – and that staffing struggles are symptomatic of being in the service industry, such as addressing call-outs or sick days, but that the proportion of staff to client population is appropriate. 

Theron understands why staff won’t let clients wander the halls by themselves, but he can’t wrap his head around the strict rules around basic hygiene access, such as limiting as many as 110 – the shelter’s daily average – people to one bathroom. Theron adds that he was granted permission to do one thing: to change his clothes without help in the men’s quarters after urinating himself.

Sally Stang, the director of housing and community services, said in a Wichita City Council meeting last fall, “You can’t have 100 people and only two bathrooms.” She declined requests to be interviewed but provided responses to questions through email.

When asked if she was aware of the bathroom limitations, she wrote that the building leased to HumanKind has 12 bathrooms available, and that any “operational decisions are those of HumanKind.”

I know that nothing’s perfect. But when a person has to pee on themselves, they lose their sense of dignity. They lose their sense of who they are.

Maryon Habtemariam, registered nurse and former HumanKind board member

Another man, Pedro, says he’s seen lines for the bathroom stretch for at least 30 minutes. Some people would give up and urinate outside or on themselves. 

“There was only one bathroom,” Pedro says, in an interview in Spanish. “Only one to be used by men and women. The lines would be ridiculous. Occasionally when people would need to go and were in a hurry, they would have to soil their clothes. Then everything was solved.”

A visit to the winter shelter confirmed that there was one daytime bathroom specifically for clients. Volunteers and shelter staff use separate stalls on the north side. The clients’ bunk areas have stalls as well, but they are forbidden from entering those areas until the shelter’s 9 p.m. bedtime.

“I don’t mean to complain. I know that nothing’s perfect,” Habtemariam says. “But when a person has to pee on themselves, they lose their sense of dignity. They lose their sense of who they are.” 

Davis confirmed that the general area does only have one bathroom, but says that staff can and have taken clients to the other side for relief. 

“I mean, I take individuals over when I’m there,” she says. “As soon as we’re starting to see the line get longer we’ll take five to six over at any given point in time just to get them through.” 

She also emphasizes that the building was not created to be a shelter and that HumanKind had a two- to three-week timeframe to move into the building. 

“We’re using the facility as best as we can with the conditions in which it is,” she says.

But the lack of bathrooms felt like a consistent problem to some clients. 

“In the morning, there’s 200 people – easy,” says Michelle, a woman who stayed for three weeks at the shelter. “Everyone drinks coffee with breakfast, then you gotta pee. One bathroom for 200 people. Men and women. No paper towels, no toilet tissue.” 

The shortcomings described by four shelter clients and two volunteer nurses, among others, include just one toilet for sometimes more than 100 people, tiny meals, a lack of staffing and the danger of fights. While the rules of staying in the shelter are outlined for those who stay there in advance, several clients say they were enforced in ways that didn’t make sense under the circumstances. Credit: Jeff Tuttle

Michelle, Theron and Pedro all witnessed the lack of toilet paper during their stays. Davis also confirmed this, but added that toilet paper is outside of the bathroom. She says it’s common practice for service providers, noting that United Methodist Open Door, a daytime shelter downtown, places toilet paper outside the restroom door. 

Showers exist, but are available only a couple of times a week. There are mobile stalls behind the shelter, but they’re not open for use every day. Men and women rotate days when they can shower – but are restricted to five-minute sessions. 

Additionally, there appeared to be no hot water on the evening of Feb. 22 – confirmed by this Journal reporter who was on site when hot water faucets at all the sinks in a staff bathroom ran cold. Davis says HumanKind has received no complaints about a lack of hot water, but acknowledged that an oversight left the hot water turned off in the medical area. A utility headache became a medical hurdle for Betty Hedges, a volunteer nurse.

One night, Hedges had a patient whose feet were covered in severe calluses, inhibiting the person’s ability to walk pain-free. She found a foot basin in the medical clinic and tried to fill it with warm water to provide a softening soak, but discovered that there was still no hot water, preventing needed care. 

Limited showers, one toilet, no hot water in the medical clinic, in a crowded, closed space running amok with contagion. It seemed unacceptable to Hedges.

“People are treated like inmates instead of patrons,” she says. 

Davis says the nonprofit takes all complaints and concerns into consideration. But his experiences have left Theron disillusioned. 

“They don’t care. The human part of HumanKind? Just gone. Kind is not even there,” he says. “I think there’s another agenda here. I don’t know what it is, but it’s not helping people.”

The Journal was unable to identify clear standards for how homeless shelters should operate when it comes to providing bathrooms, food, staffing or security. Neither HumanKind nor the city could provide detailed requirements outside of the nonprofit’s contract for operating the shelter, but city officials did have one mechanism for keeping an eye on shelter operations.

HumanKind’s contract with the city was designed to ensure city access and oversight of the shelter. One clause requires allowing the city to conduct field inspections. HumanKind is also required to provide the city with permanent office space at the site. According to the contract, monitoring visits would occur, with the city providing written reports to HumanKind within 30 days. 

Yet as of the end of February, no formal evaluations or inspections had been conducted, according to Logan Bradshaw, the assistant director of the  Wichita Housing and Community Services Department. 

Housing case management is available at the shelter, a resource for those staying there. City housing specialists are present daily, while representatives from the United Way, the Substance Abuse Center of Kansas and other organizations provide services on varying days.

Theron is a beneficiary of those services. When he was interviewed earlier in February, he said he was a couple of weeks away from learning whether he’d be granted housing through the city’s rapid re-housing program. However, he was still at the shelter the week of March 11 – case pending.

No feasible alternatives

HumanKind officials didn’t address all the allegations from clients and volunteers directly but they did acknowledge that this year’s shelter operation presented unique challenges. The building, location, security costs and transportation costs were all new to HumanKind. It did its best, they say, and temporarily protected vulnerable Wichitans from life on the street. 

“Have we not had the opportunity to use the Fundamental Learning Center we would have lost lives in our community,”

Erica Davis, chief program officer at HumanKind Ministries

“Have we not had the opportunity to use the Fundamental Learning Center we would have lost lives in our community,” Davis says. “We did not have a building that we could serve in.”

The basement in last year’s winter shelter for men flooded in January, rendering the space useless. It was also too small to accommodate the expected increase in unhoused clients. It was a gift, Davis and Bond say, that their clients were not housed there this winter. 

“I think the vast majority of people moving through there, they’re getting fed, they’re off the streets. They have this nice place to stay,” Bond says. 

“But yeah, things aren’t perfect. And at the same time, there’s reasons some of these things happened and a decent amount of these complaints have to do with security,” he says, referring to the unplanned costs HumanKind was forced to devote towards security measures around the winter shelter.

HumanKind initially budgeted $91,200 for security, including personnel and additional security cameras. Receipts submitted to the city show that as of Feb. 13, HumanKind has paid over $146,900 in that category, with more than a month’s worth of expenses to go. 

ecurity was a major concern when the East 21st street location was proposed. But questions came largely from neighborhood residents, with many pointing out that an early learning center was down the block. 

Davis says HumanKind wrote its budgets “before some of the community’s needs came about,” referring to the surrounding neighborhood’s opposition to the shelter’s location. 

“We did not anticipate having to increase security, but because of the needs of the community and the ask of the community, we had to.” 

At a November City Council meeting, officials and Wichita police assured community members that the building would be secure. City officials worked to adjust the budget for security guards and were talking to police about placing security cameras on the exterior of the building. 

The discussion centered on ensuring that the shelter and its clients would have a minimal impact on the neighborhood. The inside was briefly discussed by LaTasha St. Arnault, HumanKind’s outgoing president and CEO, and Erica Davis, who said there were rarely criminal issues and “a total of five incidents” the previous year. 

According to Davis, there have been seven physical fights between clients, three assaults on staff and seven on security during this year’s operations.

But clients didn’t always find conditions they considered to be healthy when they were inside.

Varied results on safety

Michelle left the shelter after three weeks after finding an affordable extended-stay motel. At the time of her departure, Michelle was suffering from a severe cough after getting sick with a respiratory infection while at the shelter, as fast-spreading illnesses are an unfortunate but common side effect of living in a homeless shelter no matter who operates it. 

Other characteristics to a shelter come with that territory: crowded conditions, bunking with strangers and having to fiercely protect your belongings from being stolen. But, at times to them, staying in the emergency winter shelter felt worse than expected.

“That place is nothing but a germ factory,” Becky Palacioz, who’s daughter stayed at the shelter. “That’s three weeks of hell she lived through.”

Theron was at the men’s winter shelter last year. He says the building was worse but the care was significantly better. Habtemariam and Hedges volunteered in previous years’ shelters too and noticed a decrease in comfort.

“Even before, they were able to eat their meal down there or take it up to their bunk,” Habtemariam says. Now, clients are barred from exiting the two rooms designated for daytime hours – no matter what. 

“They’re just shoved into one space. And when you’ve got men and women … it’s not a healthy environment,” she adds. “One lady said it’s better to be on drugs while I’m here. Because they have to deal with raised tempers or calling the cops or they’re throwing somebody out.”

When it comes to clients’ safety in a co-ed shelter, results vary. 

Michelle says she was shoved against a window by a young man, unprovoked. She flagged the incident to security who said they would “look into it,” but she said there was no follow-up. 

Then there’s Dawn, who moved into the winter shelter while going through a separation and “kind of a domestic violence situation.” She says she tried calling a private women’s shelter for a spot but felt uncomfortable with how much she had to disclose to prove her victimhood. 

Even though the shelter provides a refuge from her ex-husband, Dawn said she got into a physical fight with another woman in one of the sleeping quarters bathrooms. 

Theron and Pedro also say that random men look for a fight.

“There wasn’t a lot of security there,” Pedro says. “Some days there would be up to four fights in one day. Even the women would go at each other. There was no direct peace in there.”

‘Gut-wrenching’ efforts

One advantage Theron has going for him is that he gets to line up first.

One of about a hundred people staying at the shelter on most nights, he uses his walker to shuffle to the fold-up table at the back of a crowded room to accept his plate of free food – meals that vary dramatically, ranging from the building’s offerings (granola bar, piece of fruit) to a hot meal donated by a church. Everyone loves those, he says.

Food is another area where shelter clients expressed concerns. The shelter promises – and delivers – three meals a day, but clients say the offerings can be lacking. The organization is spending less on food than it originally budgeted, but that is largely because meals are expected to be donated by volunteers, churches and other groups.

Pedro says that while he was there, breakfast was often a granola bar, or some kind of pastry, coffee and a banana. Lunch? A cup of coffee, a cookie and a mandarin. A sandwich, sometimes. Dinner? Another sandwich. Sometimes there was a hot meal, but most of the time those were made and delivered by a charity. 

He complained about the meals to his care coordinator outside of the shelter, who, he says, asked HumanKind about its meal planning. 

“From then on, they started to give us a hot dog in the morning, a sandwich at midday and then in the evening they would give us some mashed potatoes and a couple of other things,” Pedro says. “It didn’t happen all the time, they only did it when I complained.”

Theron agreed, saying that most breakfasts were “a granola bar, and maybe some apples. That’s it.” He says that his doctor isn’t happy because he keeps losing weight. 

There was at least one night when food ran out. According to text messages between Habtemariam and Theron, the shelter ran short at dinner on Feb. 11.

Theron said that 30 to 40 people were left without a meal. A staff member purchased boxed macaroni and cheese in a last minute effort to feed those left without dinner. Those who asked staff for permission to leave the shelter to find something to eat nearby were denied.

Theron says he asked a staff member to bend the come-and-go rules so he could go to Dollar General for snacks. He says the worker told him no, that she was afraid she would get in trouble.

“They won’t relax ‘return time’ to let us go get something to eat,” Theron wrote. “She doesn’t feel like she has the power.” 

‘Return time’ is in reference to the strict flow of movement the shelter regulates. Clients only have three windows of opportunity to come and go with ease: 11 a.m., 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. Any one who shows up after 9 p.m. is denied entry. Clients also are not allowed to go to their bunks until “quiet time” at 9:30. 

Michelle, another client, was there that night. 

“I got up there and they ran out of food. So we had to wait until about 7:30 for macaroni and cheese,” she says. Dinner begins at 6 p.m. 

Becky Palacioz was forbidden from taking her daughter food too. Palacioz lives in low-income housing that restricts overnight guests, forcing her 57-year-old daughter to stay at the shelter once she came to Wichita. 

Palacioz did what she could to alleviate her daughter’s “very bad” experience.

“I thought I might bring some food and they said, ‘Oh, no, that’s all taken care of. We have plenty of food for them. They get three meals a day, and they get snacks.’ Which isn’t really true,” Palacioz says. “They do have food in the morning, and it’s usually a Pop-Tart and applesauce.” 

She says she was stopped when she tried to take food to her daughter. 

“They told me to get away from the door. ‘You’re not gonna linger, stay away,’” she says, repeating what she says security told her. 

According to Davis, HumanKind has never allowed friends or family to visit their shelters, which she says is a common rule in crisis shelters across the country. She says it’s a security issue. 

Staff and security are so strict on outside food that they throw away food clients try to bring inside, according to two shelter clients. 

Dawn, who’s been at the shelter for a month, takes seizure medication that requires a “balanced diet.”

“I tried having crackers in my bag and they don’t let you have it at all. They just say, ‘You can’t have any outside foods,’” Dawn says. “They’ll just toss it. I’ve had chips and a couple of different crackers tossed away.” 

On the outside food restrictions, Davis says that every client agrees to a set of rules, one of which is that no food or drink is allowed into the shelter “for a multitude of reasons.” 

“Most of which is hygiene and storage,” she says. “We don’t have the capacity to be able to store food for every individual as they’re coming in and out, so everyone is made aware that they cannot bring food or drink into the building. And that’s a common rule which we have done for years.”

She adds that HumanKind previously ran a pilot allowing clients to bring in food, but it was too heavy of a weight for its shelter staff to manage.

“It was horrible because we weren’t able to control the food that was coming in and out,” she says, explaining that some clients’ food attracted bugs or that others tried to sneak in alcohol by claiming it was medication. Sometimes, she says, fights would break out over jealousy or stolen food.

“Just policing all of those things, it became a great, horrible task. The amount of time our staff was spending managing food took away from us being able to manage people.” 

Michelle, a client at the shelter, had an experience that involved the tossing of the shelter’s own food, however. She didn’t spend daytime hours at the shelter, leaving on the first bus out to sell plasma and search for a job. She took a Pop-Tart given at breakfast with her. When she returned to the shelter that evening, a staff member threw it away.

Properly managing a homeless shelter comes with a great deal of regulations to enforce, according to HumanKind. One example is restricting outside food and maintaining come-and-go times. Credit: Jeff Tuttle

“It wasn’t outside food! It wasn’t open. They threw it away right in front of my face.” 

When asked as to why she thought shelter staff was strict on outside food, she said one reason she got was that there was concern other clients would be jealous. 

“There’s also a lot of drugs and liquor worries in there. So I understand no liquid food,” she says. “But I had a bag of chips thrown away. I wanted to keep a water bottle. I said, ‘Just throw out the water. Give me the water bottle back so I could take it back to my bunk.” 

Despite her protests, staff threw away her bottle. The rules a client signs upon entry do note that no cups or bottles are allowed inside. 

“It’s gut-wrenching sometimes having to do it,” Davis says, about throwing away people’s food at the door. “But we also have to look at the greater good of the entire program and ensure that we’re reducing conflict.”

‘Glad it’s there but it’s so tough’

After the shelter closes March 31, HumanKind plans to provide transportation for clients to downtown for a resource fair hosted by Project HOPE on April 1. The plans for next year’s emergency winter shelter remain unclear.

No accounting of the emergency winter shelter would be complete without what lessons are being learned for future operations.

In addition to HumanKind, a number of local officials put their credibility on the line to help make this winter’s shelter a reality. The necessity of the shelter was passionately defended by Stang, former mayor Brandon Whipple and the council – including councilman Brandon Johnson, who represents the neighborhood where the shelter ended up. They vouched for its life-saving benefits, providing refuge from the typical bitter Kansas winter.

When asked if the city had determined this year’s shelter was a success, Stang wrote, “Individuals needing shelter had a place to go and were able to connect with caseworkers regularly.” 

Reflecting, Davis praises her organization’s ability to adapt, recounting how the first two weeks of the shelter’s opening were before hired staff were even supposed to start. The formal opening date was initially Dec. 1 – a date weeks later than previous years – but the shelter rushed to open its doors in response to freezing temperatures around Thanksgiving. 

“We’re capable,” she says. “We met the challenge of being off-site in another community and area we’re not familiar with and trying to be as supportive as we possibly can, while also administering services and trying to care for those in our midst.”

For HumanKind to pull off its dream, no-barrier, 24/7 shelter that Wichita needs, Bond and Davis say the organization needs local government intervention, specifically in aid with infrastructure and operational funding. Given a 24/7 shelter, staffing challenges should naturally ease out, too. 

HumanKind board member Ryan Bond and chief program officer Erica Davis praised their organization’s ability to take on the challenge of addressing great need while balancing outside concern. The winter shelter has counted over 1,000 people since opening last November. Credit: Jeff Tuttle

“I’m so proud of the city stepping up to their responsibility and the county playing a role like this,” Bond says. “This is a public health issue and we believe that the government – to prioritize a no-barrier emergency shelter throughout the year – that is a government’s responsibility.” 

Stang says that continuing to invest in a no-barrier, 24/7 shelter next winter is a City Council decision, but that it has provided funding for the winter shelter for several years. However, the location will change. 

The clients and volunteers interviewed for this story want to see improved conditions next year. But they also believe that the community needs to continue offering a winter shelter for the health and safety of a growing homeless population.

“I guess I’m just feeling like, yes, it’s an emergency shelter. Yes, they don’t have a place to stay otherwise,” Habtemariam says. “But … we do better by our animals. … I mean even dogs and cats have a nice place to stay and people to clean up their pens and have food and get to go outdoors and run around a little bit.”

For all that’s happened at the shelter, both good and bad, its closure still represents a loss for those who have been served by it.

Two weeks after leaving the shelter, Michelle, who says she felt like she had post-traumatic stress from living there, ran out of money. 

“Unfortunately I have to go back today,” she says in a text message. “Glad it’s there but it’s so tough. I feel terrible. The place doesn’t feed you.”

This time, she took her own toilet paper.

Stefania Lugli is a reporter for The Journal who focuses on covering issues related to homelessness in Wichita and across Kansas. Her stories are shared widely through the Wichita Journalism Collaborative. She can be reached via email slugli@kansasleadershipcenter.org.

This article was republished here with the permission of: KLC Journal