Calls for state aid grow as homelessness worsens across Kansas

The Legislature has considered bills to help, but have yet to pass anything yet. Meanwhile, hospitals and other agencies have been dropping people in homeless encampments.

by Blaise Mesa


  • Kansas lawmakers tried to address homelessness, but their bills haven’t passed
  • Homelessness is rising across the state, putting cities in a bind as the state fails to find solutions
  • Cities need more funding, but also other types of support to address the issue 

Homelessness is rising across Kansas. It’s booming in Lawrence, where it increased 51% from 2020 to 2023.

Misty Bosch-Hastings, director of the Homeless Solutions Division for Lawrence, said that rise comes partly from people dropping off homeless people at camps in the city. Nearby hospitals, correctional facilities or mental health centers will pull up with someone, leave them at a sanctioned camp and drive away. 

Nobody gives Lawrence a heads-up, Bosch-Hastings said. 

“It’s just a horrible process to take somebody who’s already in crisis and put them in a town where they know nobody,” she said. “They’re not tied to any support, natural or otherwise.”

Homelessness is getting worse across the nation. The number of unhoused Americans rose 6% since 2017 even though it has slowed recently — rising just 0.3% since 2021. Kansas had over 2,600 homeless people in 2023, according to a federal report. 

A Kansas Legislature committee is addressing the issue, but it has failed to pass legislation this year. Some ideas the committee proposed were controversial because they created new criminal penalties around camping on public land. 

The 2024 legislative session is almost over and the state hasn’t passed any substantial reform. All this happens while cities and counties struggle to combat the issue. 

“No community in Kansas has enough resources to face this challenge on its own,” Nathan Eberline, executive director of the League of Kansas Municipalities, said in an email. 

Each city has its distinct homelessness problems. It looks different in large and smaller cities and the approaches differ in Wichita, Topeka and Lawrence. 

Wichita officials told lawmakers in March that they fall $20 million short on a building project that could create a massive multiuse campus to address homelessness. A bill creating a possible grant fund failed to pass. 

Bosch-Hastings said Lawrence has built key infrastructure through COVID relief funds. A new pallet home village is full and the one-time American Rescue Plan Act funds are drying up before cities have fully addressed homelessness. 

In general, Eberline said the cities and counties lack bed space, health care professionals, funding and health coverage — inpatient services and other programs to address mental health and addiction. 

He said cities and counties are spending on homeless programs, “but it is the proverbial drop in the bucket.” 

Creating more places for homeless people to sleep can cost millions of dollars just to build. Then millions more in staff and yearly maintenance are needed. 

That means cities need to create more housing stock, like apartments and affordable housing. Advocates say some Kansans are homeless because rents are rising faster than wages. The state offers voucher programs to offset the costs of housing, but some cities lack available housing so the vouchers expire before they can be used. 

Homelessness also exacerbates mental health and substance use issues, which means cities and counties need to invest in treatment as well. 

Addressing affordable housing, mental health, substance use and inflation often prove more daunting, and more expensive, than a city or county can handle without state or federal tax dollars. 

Christy McMurphy, executive director of the Kansas Statewide Homeless Coalition, said this is a statewide issue that needs support from the state government. 

Her group wants Medicaid expansion to help Kansans, but an attempt to vote on that was shot down by the Republican-controlled Senate. She’d also like to see service providers for the homeless craft their own legislation so lawmakers know what they want. 

McMurphy said she’s happy to see a Statehouse committee focus so heavily on homelessness. And while those lawmakers are becoming more knowledgeable, the whole legislative body needs to learn more. 

“This is a bipartisan issue that affects businesses and neighborhoods,” McMurphy said. “We all want the same thing.”

Rep. Leah Howell, a Derby Republican, is the vice chair of the House Welfare Reform committee, which has spent hours hearing from cities and providers about homelessness. There was even a special committee created on homelessness. 

She said just getting hearings on bills about homelessness is a big step forward. Howell said it’s not OK for Kansans to be sleeping on the streets in unsafe conditions, which is why she’s hoping to pass some reform. Howell plans to bring up the issue again next session, but is still considering the best legislative approach. 

Cities aren’t necessarily looking for a bunch of money, advocates say, though continued funding does help. But each year, the Legislature receives hundreds of requests for taxpayer dollars. That makes some lawmakers hesitant to commit to spending years down the line. 

Howell wrote the bill tying grant funding to local ordinance enforcement. She specifically wanted the money to go to shelters because federal money can’t be used for them and building them is a one-time expense. 

“We have to find another solution than where we’re at currently, especially when we see the problem continuing to escalate,” she said. 

Eberline, with the league of municipalities, said cities welcome a collaborative approach, but they hope it’s different from past bills pushed by lawmakers. Those bills created new criminal penalties for homelessness or tied state aid to better enforcement of local ordinances that could penalize cities. 

“This problem will not get better without support at the state level,” Eberline said.

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