On a cold January morning, teams of volunteers were dispatched from Open Doors headquarters on Second Street to count the number of homeless people living in the city and connect them to help.
The Point-in-Time Annual Count provides a snapshot of homelessness in the community and is used to determine the amount of federal funding the city will receive for homeless services next year.
“It’s both for funding and for awareness,” said Cole Sehnieders, continuum of care planning manager at United Way of the Plains, who oversees the counting process.
Thursday’s tally comes a week after a task force of local leaders set a goal of ending homelessness in the community within three years.
Volunteers who collected data on homeless people gave them bags with snacks, a reusable water bottle, an emergency blanket and inflatable pillow, hygiene products and hand warmers: “Things you would want if you were without shelter in a day like today when it’s really cold outside,” Sehnieder said.
They also shared information about resources, including HumanKind Ministries’ 24/7 emergency shelter, which houses men, women and families.
“One man I found and was able to count, he didn’t even know about the shelter all day,” said Dominique Davis, a Salvation Army employee who has attended the count for the past three years. “He was like, ‘Oh, when did this start?’ And so he started packing after we gave him stuff and started heading that way.
Sehnieders said the range helps catch people who have fallen through the cracks.
“There was a story last year of a veteran who was basically doing services and he was homeless, and then he disappeared in the VA but we found him during the point-in-time count last year and then we’re managed to get him housed,” Sehnieder said.
He said he expects this year’s numbers to be finalized in April before the federal deadline in May. The 2022 point count found 619 homeless people in Sedgwick County, almost all in Wichita. According to the city, people experiencing homelessness are left without shelter for an average of 71 days.
“I felt it was important for me to have more of a first hand experience of what our accommodation was like [Homeless Outreach Team] they are working,” said Bryan Frye, City Council member for District 5, who began the count at 4:30 a.m. with other volunteers.
“It was about really learning what’s going on and what people are experiencing, so it was enlightening, sobering, but extremely informative.”
Until 2018, the Point-in-Time count was hosted at Century II, where volunteers feed meals and provide haircuts and other services. Then the Sedgwick County continuum of assistance moved to sending teams of volunteers.
“We were finding people who were in fields all over the city, and they didn’t know or didn’t want to go to a big event,” Sehnieders said. “So we changed it to go to them, wherever they camp, with some resources.”
Volunteers are being sent to targeted locations identified in the month before the count by groups including the Wichita Police Department’s Homeless Awareness Team and the Wichita Children’s Home as probable campsites. They interview people they find to better understand what support services they might benefit from.
“Questions like: ‘Do you suffer from severe and persistent mental illness?’ “Do you have substance use disorder?” Questions that just help us understand, if we were to take them to accommodation, what level of case management would they need to stay in that accommodation? Sehnieder said.
The Wichita Homeless Task Force held its initial meeting last week, bringing together a committee of elected officials and nonprofit leaders on the recommendation of the Coalition on Mental Health and Substance Abuse.
During the meeting, task force members set a goal of achieving “functional zero” homelessness, a metric that indicates a community has measurably solved homelessness.
“We need to make some significant changes to our entire community ecosystem to try to achieve these goals,” said Sally Stang, city director of housing and community services.
“We don’t want people living in a shelter. And that’s the whole idea around functional zero. You’ll never get to zero, sorry. Any day, someone could end up becoming homeless. The idea of functional zero is that when someone becomes homeless, they are quickly moved into housing.
Sehnieders said he doesn’t think three years is too ambitious a time frame to reach functional zero.
“I think there is a mix of resources that are untapped or uncombined in our community, so I am very confident that that task force will do a good job of uniting county, city, federal, private dollars in a mission to end homeless,” he said.
The task force will also oversee the administration of a $1 million Justice Department grant aimed at reducing crime and addressing homelessness in the Broadway corridor between 10th and Kellogg and Waco in Washington.
Last month, the city council voted to apply for a federal grant to support the construction of a facility that combines a homeless shelter, affordable housing units and a social services center. Officials acknowledged that the combined campus would likely cost at least five times the $5.5 million grant allocated through the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s HOME-ARP program.
“The way we pitched it at this point is we wanted to do something that was that home run swing,” Stang said at the time.
The city will use a competitive bidding process to seek available vendors who could help manage the city-owned shelters and housing units.