Wichitans want solutions for homelessness. Can they accept them in their backyard?

As the city mulls its next steps on financing a 24/7 homeless shelter, a tension takes shape: How can a neighborhood live peacefully with homeless services and those who receive them?

by Stefania Lugli

As Wichita struggles to address a growing homeless population with uncertain funding, crucial details surrounding a future city-operated homeless shelter or resource center remain unresolved. 

Among several homelessness-related initiatives promoted by the city is a multiagency campus and center, often referred to as the MAC – a one-stop resource center that would house supportive low-income housing and two 24/7, low-barrier homeless shelters; one communal, one not. 

In its recent session, the Legislature considered allocating $40 million for homeless services statewide to be distributed as grants, but action on the proposal fizzled amid a provision that would have required communities to enforce ordinances on camping and vagrancy. Wichita is now left to decide how to divvy up the last of its $25 million in American Rescue Plan Funds. A primary consideration is: Should it fund the start of a permanent center or provide another temporary emergency shelter to be open in the winter? 

Council Member Maggie Ballard thinks the city’s goal right now should be to figure out how to fund the MAC. 

“The MAC is our prize. We are keeping our eye on the prize and figuring out how we can do this,” she says. “If the state’s not going to partner with us, we need to get creative.”

The former Riverside Hospital in west Wichita remains a possibility for the MAC, Ballard says. But if chosen, it would be the first such facility near the Indian Hills and Delano residential neighborhoods. 

If that happens – or if another emergency winter shelter opens up before the MAC does – there would be an adjustment period for both housed and homeless Wichitans. Neighborhoods such as downtown and Historic Midtown are accustomed to living alongside homeless services and their patrons and have some familiarity with the strains that come with it.

The former Riverside Hospital at 2622 W. Central may be home to Wichita’s future one-stop shop for homeless resources, including shelter beds. Credit: Jeff Tuttle

But what about neighborhoods less acquainted with co-existing? How can the needs and interests of those residents be balanced with the need to provide services to homeless people? 

The Journal spent time with Wichitans across the city, as well as city officials, to weave together lessons learned so far and cautions for the future when it comes to having neighborhood residents and Wichita’s homeless living in the same area.

From these conversations, The Journal learned about the importance of extensive communication between city officials and neighborhoods, assurances that no one area will have to carry too much of a burden hosting homeless services and the need for residents to be provided more data about what is and isn’t working when it comes to homelessness, so neighborhoods know what part they’re playing in the solution.

The recent past: lessons from 21st and Grove

Last season’s temporary winter shelter arrived in northeast Wichita with controversy. Aside from homeless clients expressing concern about conditions, the shelter’s opening at 21st and Grove was opposed by many in the Northeast Millair neighborhood. 

At a November City Council meeting, Millair residents criticized the city’s decision to place the shelter in a residential neighborhood, expressing concerns about cleanliness and safety. Past winter shelters operated by HumanKind Ministries were located near its campus in Midtown.

Residents were also angry that a predominantly Black neighborhood was being forced to take in another disadvantaged population – the homeless. 

Aujanae Bennett, a 56-year Millair resident and president of its neighborhood association, was one of those opposing the shelter’s opening. 

She claims that Millair residents noticed more trash and nuisances such as public defecation and urination around the shelter, complaints validated in part by a city council member but difficult to document. She also took issue with the shelter’s no-barrier system, saying that allowing anyone to seek shelter meant that people suffering with severe mental illness could be just down the street from a child care center and the Boys and Girls Club of South Central Kansas, located nearby on Opportunity Drive. 

“They didn’t screen anybody, so that was a concern for us,” Bennett says. “I think we need to think of the safety of our residents.”

She notes that homeless people were dissatisfied with the situation too, citing complaints about their treatment while in the shelter.

The emergency winter shelter at 21st and Grove drew ire from Millair residents, a sentiment that did not deter city officials like Council Member Brandon Johnson from voting in favor of the temporary location. The shelter served over 1,000 clients in five months. Credit: Jeff Tuttle

Brandon Johnson, who represents the City Council district that includes Millair, says the shelter’s location was not ideal but still a necessity. 

“You have to look at impacts and long term. In this neighborhood, it was impacted by the shelter being there. But in the short term, we made a decision and allowed people to have a warm place to go temporarily, even if it impacted that neighbor,” Johnson says. 

“Of course there were incidents. Of course it was trashy a little bit. It did not work out perfect, but we did not expect perfection,” he adds. “This was a last-minute ‘we got to keep people off the streets.’”

Ballard, a self-proclaimed over-communicator, says the rollout of last winter’s shelter was fumbled. 

“I think there was a real missed opportunity there to bring people alongside,” she says. “We really did search tons of different places. Certainly, we didn’t have the time and did not do a good job of informing people throughout the process.”

“I’m even worried about right now,” she says. “Winter’s going to creep up here really, really soon. I know there’s conversations happening about options, but it takes so long to get things figured out. Even once you know where the location is going to be, it’s not overnight.” 

Millair residents opposed the winter shelter, in part, because they are weary of putting up with additional stressors beyond what they’ve accumulated. Living near homeless residents was not new. Bennett points out that the area already hosts Union Rescue Mission, a privately-run men’s only homeless shelter and service tucked alongside Glen Dey Park. Stays at the shelter usually run for only 30 days.

If clients leave the shelter without housing set up, they tend to stay in the area by either living at the park or sleeping at bus stops, she says.

“So to have to deal with both of them at the same time was kind of a challenge,” Bennett says.

Aujanae Bennett, a 56-year resident of Millair, opposed the emergency winter shelter’s location in the neighborhood. She said that residents felt forced to bear the weight of yet another vulnerable population in an already disenfranchised community. Credit: Jeff Tuttle

She says that the dynamic between Union Rescue Mission and the surrounding neighborhood is peaceful after years of work. If there are issues, she says, there’s an established line of communication. There’s trust between community leaders like herself and service providers like Union Rescue Mission.

Homeless people live all over Wichita, regardless of the proximity of a shelter or services. But the visibility of that population is lower without a service provider drawing clients, especially one with no barriers for entry, such as a winter shelter.

When it comes to safety concerns, there’s little data that suggests a significant increase in crime during last winter’s operations. 

“A lot of folks said that a lot more crime was happening. It must not have been reported, because our numbers didn’t drastically jump,” Johnson says.

He adds that the few complaints he got from local businesses were mostly about the increased numbers of homeless people around. The local Family Dollar told Johnson there was more thefts at the time, but they weren’t reporting it.

That store is closing, leading to speculation that the reason was shoplifting. Family Dollar did not answer inquiries by The Journal about the reason for the closure. In March, Dollar Tree, which owns Family Dollar, announced that it was closing 600 locations nationwide in an effort to improve profits.

Johnson says there weren’t any reports of violent incidents, either. A couple of people were reported for acting aggressively, such as “yelling into the air and kind of swinging at the air a little bit,” but no assaults were reported. 

Still, Bennett is disappointed in City Hall – and Johnson. 

“He voted yes for the shelter here. I told him, ‘Whether you were the only no or not, you should have stood with your community. Because that’s something the community doesn’t want.’”

In Midtown: ‘The act of homelessness is not something that upsets me’

For other neighborhoods, being located near a cluster of services means having homeless residents as neighbors. In Midtown, co-existing with the homeless can bring a degree of familiarity. Residents know many homeless people by name and don’t mind sharing space with them – they just wish that the responsibility of community care would be shared throughout Wichita. 

Rhandalee Hinman is a proud Midtown resident of over 20 years – one who rejects any perception that the neighborhood is lesser because of the density of services and homeless people.

“The ‘negative’ impact of services in our neighborhood is not actually having them here. It is the perception of the Wichita population that this is not a nice area,” Hinman says. “So we don’t see development. We don’t see families moving in.” 

Hinman says that she’s had a couple of home break-ins, the sort of thing that definitely hurts the area’s reputation, but she can’t say the perpetuator was homeless. Other than those incidents, she says she’s relatively unbothered.

Midtown residents like Rhandalee Hinman have lived decades alongside homeless Wichitans. She says that though the community is peaceful, she thinks successful homelessness policy would move resources south — farther from densely populated residential neighborhoods. Credit: Jeff Tuttle

Makayla Nasser-Welch, a 14-year resident of Midtown and president of its neighborhood association, says she strives to encourage others to see the homeless as neighbors. 

“I think there are plenty of adjectives out there that explain how people feel about the homeless, and not very many of them are positive. I don’t have a negative feeling about people who are struggling and their only option is my street corner,” she says. “I have a problem with thieves. I have a problem with people who hurt other people. But the act of homelessness itself is not something that upsets me.”

She admits that theft is an issue. 

“If you live in Midtown, you don’t leave a bicycle out anywhere. You don’t. Because in five minutes it will be gone. And you’ll see somebody who you know has no business riding a girl’s pink, fluffy bike down the street.”

Nasser-Welch says she knows of one Midtown resident who passes out trash bags to homeless people, to use for garbage or to carry their belongings. 

“I hadn’t thought of that. But they don’t have access to trash services, right? And they don’t want to live that way either,” Nasser-Welch says. “Now if I run across one of our unhoused neighbors, I’ll offer them a trash bag and tell them ‘if you just leave it here tied up, I’ll pick it up on my way back.’ And I am not joking. Nine times out of ten, there is a full trash bag right there waiting for me that I never would have had the opportunity to get off the street or get rid of.” 

Hinman and Nasser-Welch agreed on one particular sentiment: The residents of Midtown are tired. 

Nasser-Welch says that many homeowners struggle with the process of selling their homes, because their proximity to homeless services weighs on the selling price. 

“Everyone’s tired of fighting it (the homeless problem), but there’s still energy here. Because there’s so much opportunity for growth,” Hinman says. 

“I think sometimes our neighbors feel bad seeing our unhoused population,” Nasser-Welch says. “I think that act of feeling bad makes them not like the experience (of living next to it).”

What does an “ideal” location look like for a homeless shelter?

Both Hinman and Nasser-Welch say that the ideal homeless strategy for Wichita to adopt would be to share the responsibility of care. Several service providers – including United Way of the Plains, The Lord’s Diner, the Salvation Army, HumanKind Ministries and United Methodist Open Door – currently are clustered in downtown Wichita. Because most homeless people lack transportation, many choose to stay near where they can get food, showers and case management.

The streets of downtown and Historic Midtown are home to a dense homeless population, likely due to the concentration of homeless resources and service providers in the area, like United Methodist Open Door (pictured above). Credit: Jeff Tuttle

Hinman and Nasser-Welch differ, though, on where a centralized campus should go. Hinman thinks that a neighborhood’s growth is easily hindered by a populous homeless community, so she thinks that creating a campus like OneRise (the location of Sedgwick County’s new mental health hospital), which will be located south of Wichita, is ideal.

“I just think for growth of businesses, it would be better down south,” Hinman says. “And, you know, we don’t have to have transportation down there then, because everything’s down there.”

Nasser-Welch has thrown her support behind moving services to the former Riverside Hospital. 

“The concentration is fierce here (in Midtown). It would be better to be a little more diluted,” she says, referring to all the services in her neighborhood. “If Riverside Hospital gets to move forward, it’s an exciting opportunity to see what Midtown could look like without everything being right here.”

Denise O’Leary-Siemer, a 21-year resident of Indian Hills, one of the neighborhoods that would be impacted if Riverside Hospital were to become the MAC, sees the site’s potential. But she is a little wary.

“What policy is driving this? Do we have any data, any evidence of it working? What went wrong there on 21st Street?” she says. “Is it going to be truly a resource center or is it going to be a containment center? A corral? That’s what I’m afraid of.”

She characterizes her neighborhood as peaceful with a very low crime rate. She’s noticed that more encampments are beginning to pop up farther north along the Arkansas River but hasn’t heard of any negative impact. Of course, she wants to keep it that way.

She reflects on a time when a homeless woman camping along the river left her encampment after O’Leary-Siemer’s sister called the police department’s Homeless Outreach Team about her. She requested that the city clean up the site, and when that didn’t happen, her sister and a neighbor cleared it out themselves.

The future

The Journal poised this question to both council members: How do you encourage a community that might be uncomfortable with having a shelter nearby? How do you engage with that concern, make residents feel heard and comforted, but also try to help them understand that a service like a shelter is for the greater good? 

Johnson’s answer relies on data. Once he’s convinced that a location is the best for homelessness services, then it’s about engaging with the residents.

“Less on the greater good and more on the ‘This site will help this population in these ways, and this is why it’s the best,’” Johnson says. “But anticipate what that pushback would be. I think a more informed public can understand (data) whether they like it or not. Wichita is supportive of different things but not in my backyard.” 

Another important aspect of engaging with a neighborhood when planning a potential new site is to ask the right questions, he says. 

“‘What would make this location better for you? Is it a fence? A wooden or masonry fence? A certain number of officers? You try to take in even a reluctant neighborhood’s wishes to make that site better. To make themselves feel more comfortable.” 

Ballard represents District 6, an area of Wichita that stretches from just east of downtown to west of the Arkansas River – where a majority of the city’s homeless services are located. 

What’s ideal in the planning of a new homeless resource or shelter in a neighborhood: timely, consistent communication from city officials, assurances that no one area will have to carry too much of a burden hosting services and a need for residents to be provided more data about what is and isn’t working when it comes to homelessness. Credit: Jeff Tuttle

She says that most of the complaints she fields are regarding encampments on the river. A lot of her constituents feel frustrated with the lack of enforcement of camping ordinances, an issue made more complex by the lack of shelter beds available. 

Wichita ordinances prevent disbanding encampments unless a homeless person has a shelter bed to go to. There are no women’s shelters in the city (except for those fleeing domestic violence) and only Union Rescue Mission accepts homeless men. Temporary housing units such as HumanKind’s Studios have long waitlists. 

Given that, how can officials like Ballard validate a housed person’s concerns about unhoused people?

“Listening to them is the absolute most important thing. Making sure that they feel heard and trying to address it in the best way that I possibly can,” Ballard says. “In doing that, though, we have to increase affordable housing. If you’re staying along the river, unless you’re a male that can go to Union Rescue or someone leaving a DV (domestic violence) situation, there’s literally nowhere for anybody to go.” 

Bennett, the Millair resident, holds views similar to Hinman. She has doubts whether homeless services and residential neighborhoods can thrive together. 

“In a densely populated area? I think it can be unrealistic,” she says. “They really need to think about where they’re going to put it. I’m sure that people near Riverside Hospital are not going to be happy about it.”

O’Leary-Siemer is particularly concerned about whether the MAC would force homeless people to be invisible – contained in one place, perhaps forced into the back of the community’s mind.

“If they’re out and about, it doesn’t bother me. I live in a very conservative neighborhood, so others might be concerned,” she says. “But what really bothers me is when I see a homeless person, I wonder what kind of help he or she needs.”

If a future MAC or shelter might settle nearby, O’Leary-Siemer wants this: She wants to know who the decision makers are. She wants to be invited to every meeting, with chances to give feedback that feels genuinely heard. 

Bennett agrees. 

“Neighborhood associations are grassroots. You need to invite those presidents and their staff to your meetings and sit down and discuss with us what’s going to be put in our community and take our recommendations,” she says. “Because we live here, and you don’t.” 

Communication will be key, Ballard says.

“Communication is extremely important to me. I usually have a community meeting or forum. I think even if it’s good or bad news, I think having an opportunity for people’s voices to be heard is extremely important.

“How people get their information is half the battle,” Ballard says. “Really saturating people with information is what needs to be done.”

As the city maps out a way forward on dealing with homelessness, it will have to navigate the tension between neighborhood opposition to hosting homeless services – and the challenges they can bring to an area – and the need for the homeless to have access to those services to survive and move into housing.

For Brandon Johnson, the ideal communication strategy includes a little more control over its notification method. He says that while the city was preparing its communication rollout to northeast Wichitans about the winter shelter, the decision leaked. 

“It literally got leaked to the media as we were planning the engagement to the community,” Johnson says. “That morning I came in at like 7:30 and was like ‘We got the door hangers.’ And I wanted to call a public meeting and meet people, and I got told the news ran already. So that sucked.” 

Nasser-Welch knows empathy won’t be enough. 

“Just because I care and I’m compassionate, it doesn’t fix it,” she says. “I’m hoping the task force comes up with answers. I’m hoping that we as Wichitans are strong enough as a community to honor the answers. Because we’re very vocal when they don’t work. But are we as vocal about supporting when they know what could work?”

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