Wichitans, housed and not, lie in wait about a future homeless campus

The city announced their intent to explore the former Park Elementary as the site for a multiagency campus and center for homeless services.

by Stefania Lugli

In Historic Midtown sits a recently-emptied building, the once-oldest school operating in Wichita: Park Elementary, usually home to about 200 students, empty of the children and teachers that once walked its halls.

The decision to close the school this past May hit Midtown residents hard, many of which are families with children. Now, a second government decision is coming their way: transforming the former elementary school into the city’s multiagency campus and center, often referred to as the MAC –  a one-stop resource center that would house supportive low-income housing and a low-barrier homeless shelter.

The idea isn’t cemented – yet.

The June 6 announcement startled many in a neighborhood that felt all-too ready to share the responsibility of harboring homeless resources with other parts of town. Many hoped that the MAC could land at a former hospital on the other side of the river. In a week’s worth of policy announcements and public meetings, Midtown residents showed up in droves, peppering each room with dozens of questions regarding security, cleanliness and how the neighborhood became the hot spot for homeless services.

But what about those affected who won’t attend public meetings? What do they know about the proposal? How are they feeling about it?

So far, no one who has identified themselves as homeless has spoken publicly about the proposal in front of Midtown neighbors and city officials. And while neighbors have been vocal about their concerns, what about those who don’t have the time or will to venture to such meetings?

In hopes of hearing from new voices, this reporter, along with photographer Julian Montes, journeyed out from downtown to the area around the former school in Midtown with the idea of allowing a few more Wichitans to bring their thoughts to the table.

The first stop? A part of downtown just south of Midtown, where homeless people often gather in close proximity to Wichita’s existing homeless services.

What the homeless are saying

Ace sat on the steps of Saint John’s Episcopal, watching passerby and cars come by. The day was not yet at its peak temperature — 90 degrees — when we crossed paths with him.

He sat with a portable speaker hanging from his neck, his hand grasped around the handle of a muddied Nike bag in his lap. His skin protected by a long, blue flannel and a fisherman’s hat.

The proposed MAC would include at least 150 beds ready to provide emergency shelter this winter, with full operations expected to be up and running in 2026, according to the city’s proposal. Credit: Julian Montes

Did he know about the MAC? Yes, he nodded. He was told by a service provider. Did he know about some of the residential friction around the plan? Yes he did.

“It shouldn’t be a big deal, but people have their opinions. It’s their backyards,” he says. “I don’t think it will hurt anything. I don’t see anything wrong with it. I think it’s beneficial more than anything.”

He points out that downtown and Midtown already host plenty of resources, such as United Methodist Open Door, The Lord’s Diner, treatment centers and other outreach initiatives. He can’t see how much would change with the addition of the MAC.

“Wichita is new to a lot of stuff so they’re gonna be hesitant about anything,” Ace says.

Ace says he’s experienced homelessness for several years and had stayed in the previous winter shelter. He isn’t sure whether he’d stay at the next one. He says that the city would have to make sure that any shelter feels safe, comfortable and still gives freedom to its homeless patrons.

“People feel like it’s like jail or something with all the rules and stuff,” he says.

Across the road was Kim Kammerab, sitting cross-legged on pavement, finding refuge from the sun underneath a single tree. She says homelessness for her “could happen at any moment” as all of her income goes towards rent and bills. She doesn’t consider herself formerly homeless as she used to stay with friends and family when she was “in between places.” Her current situation, though, leaves her reliant on outreach efforts like the one we found her waiting for at 3rd and Topeka.

She didn’t know about the MAC. She had questions about whether the campus would serve low-income individuals on the brink of homelessness, too.

“I’m not saying don’t help the homeless, but they get a lot,” she says. “Somebody says they only want to help the homeless. So now low-income people who spend all their money on rent and bills like me literally have no money left. So I have to come out here or be short on food and clothes. I’m just throwing that out there.”

Kammerab points out that many people experiencing homelessness do have income of some kind, just not enough to afford a home. She’s one of the ‘lucky’ ones that has a roof over her head, albeit a “hellhole.”

What’s been missing in the discourse regarding the MAC thus far are those whose live what it is trying to better. Many of the homeless Wichitans The Journal spoke with don’t think the MAC will make a significant neighborhood impact. But some say they are skeptical about the quality of services it’ll offer. Credit: Julian Montes

“That’s all I can afford,” Kammerab, a senior, says. “They shut down Shirkmere. They shut down Commodore. Those were all for low income people. Now they’re going to renovate them and raise the rent, so there’s going to be more homeless. Yeah, of course there’s going to be more homeless.”

Two other homeless Wichitans expressed their skepticism about the MAC. One had heard of it, the other had not.

John, 61 and recently on parole, lives in south Wichita, but walks to downtown for food and a shower. When informed about the MAC and whether he’d utilize it, he shrugged.

“I shy away from people. I don’t like being in big groups,” he says. “I’m skeptical of everything.”

Shawna heard about the MAC at Breakthrough Turning Point, a resource in downtown. She says she, too, prefers the streets, finding the tight quarters of a shelter uncomfortable as a woman.

“Honestly they’re trying to get rid of all the homeless people right now,” she says. She’s considering directly connecting with the Homeless Outreach Team for housing, noting that her ex-husband found housing through them.

On the steps of Park Elementary

Stand in one spot at the front entrance of the former Park Elementary, you see’ll this: family homes with plastic toys littering the lawns, a metal fence protectively hugging a business, a broadcast TV station, Breakthrough Clubhouse, a social services organization, and a building with thick, black letters spelling out “DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS” framed by trees. That’s the probation office.

Some houses have fences, others have “NO TRESPASSING” signs, but nearly every one has a security camera looming above the front door.

At one home, which sits in sight of the school’s front entrance, Garcia laments about the city’s likely decision to place the MAC next to her house. The Journal withheld her name at her request for privacy reasons.

“It’s not gonna be good. My stepdad was like, if they’re doing that, we’re just gonna build a fence,” she says.

A majority of homes around Park Elementary have security cameras, which residents say is a symptom of living in close proximity to homeless services. Residents expressed concern in public meetings and to The Journal that theft will get worse if the MAC opens in Midtown. Credit: Julian Montes

Garcia says her family has been the victim of several thefts, including her stepdad’s lawnmower and a car being broken into. She worries that crime will get worse and homelessness will be more visible.

“I just don’t think they can fit everybody in there. I feel like they’re still gonna hang out outside and probably camp on my yard or something.”

Two kids, 6 and 7 years-old, live in the house. They were students at Park. Garcia says if the MAC opens there, she thinks the family will limit any outside play to the backyard. They’ll be strict about stranger danger.

Garcia feels sympathy for the homeless, but feels like her attempts of outreach don’t end nicely. She says a lot don’t feel like they’re in “their mindset” and she’s yelled and cussed at frequently. She understands the necessity of the MAC, she just wishes it wasn’t at her front door.

“I mean, there’s nowhere else they can really go. I feel bad about that. Especially in the cold weather. I try to offer food sometimes,” she says. “But like, why that school? It’s just too close to us.”

One woman, Patricia Sims, was walking her dog in the neighborhood. She told us she’s not sure how she feels about the MAC’s potential placement.

“I don’t know how I feel about that. It’s just gonna bring more chaos in the area. We have enough of it as is,” she says. “Maybe it’ll do more help, but I think it’ll do more harm than help.”

Some Midtown residents and workers worry that the MAC’s potential site in Midtown will cause more harm than good. “This is going to encroach all over our lives,” says one member of Breakthrough Clubhouse, an organization directly across from Park Elementary. The Clubhouse serves people with severe and persistent mental illness. Credit: Julian Montes

One man who declined to give his name said he was indifferent to the MAC, saying he felt that the city would do whatever it wanted regardless of community buy-in.

“The city is gonna do what it what it does anyways so it don’t matter,” he says. “They didn’t ask us.”

At Breakthrough Clubhouse, directly facing Park Elementary, a group of men standing outside shared about their internal debate. The Clubhouse is a social services organization that serves people with severe mental illness.

“There’s kind of a 50/50 split right now because this is going to encroach all over our lives,” Sean says. The Journal withheld his last name to protect his privacy as a Clubhouse member.

“We’re worried about it. We’re worried about riff, we’re worried about raff. We’re worried about heightened security. I mean, a lot of our members are not street people, so we don’t want them being taken advantage of anyway,” he says.

“Wichita is new to a lot of stuff so they’re gonna be hesitant about anything,” says one Wichitan currently experiencing homelessness. Credit: Julian Montes

Sean says that the building used to service public breakfasts and lunches, which unfortunately led to conflicts between members and non-members. Their membership isn’t exclusive to homeless people, he explains. Some members are, but once the building transitioned away from those meals, the Clubhouse was able to find some peace.

The big concern, he says, is that the Clubhouse wants to protect its members. There’s worry that some people would get confused and walk into the Clubhouse for MAC-related resources.

“The second we heard this everyone in here freaked out and started talking about if we got the money and resources to move.”

Next steps for the MAC

On Monday, June 10, a few days after Midtown residents learned of the MAC’s potential in their neighborhood, the USD 259 Board of Education had planned a vote on whether to enter an option agreement with the City of Wichita. If they voted yes, city council would decide the next day on whether to make the site an official option. To the surprise of some, the board delayed their vote to June 27.

For the city to operate an emergency winter shelter this season, the MAC must be approved, renovated and readied – quickly. Typically the emergency winter shelter opens in November, which is five months away.

Almost no one argues that the MAC is not a community necessity. Where friction arises is where to place it. To some, it makes sense to place it nearby a plethora of other homeless resources within walking distance, but others argue to place it farther away from a residential neighborhood already feeling the strains of co-existing with homeless neighbors.

The situation illustrates the delicate line the city is walking in balancing the needs and interests of housed Wichitans and the need to provide services to homeless people.

What the summer heat exacerbates is that, with minimal shelter beds to offer, Wichita’s homelessness is more visible than ever. The reactions to the MAC show that any solution won’t be an easy one. That the discussion is happening hints at a sense of urgency that solutions are desperately needed – and fast.

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