Cold winds and 1.1 inches of snow overnight greeted City of Topeka employees and volunteers from dawn to dusk Wednesday as they counted homeless people in the capital.
The U.S. Department of Housing requires a tally each year to ensure cities can obtain the adequate funding needed to provide programs and other needed services for people experiencing homelessness.
“I think it’s important to remember that this is a snapshot,” said Kimberly Williams-Gatson, homeless programming supervisor at Valeo Behavioral Health Care.
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Williams-Gatson said the snowfall creates an easier process for counting the homeless because you’re better able to “see their footprints” and determine if they’re in their fields.
“It’s also a problem, because you get to see a lot more of their fields,” he said. “It warns more people about what’s really going on, but it’s always been there.”
The time count on January 26 of last year showed an increase in the percentage of the city’s homeless population. The findings showed that “365 people were experiencing homelessness that day in Topeka, up from 298 during the count conducted in January of 2021.”
Typically, total homeless numbers for a new year’s tally won’t be available for about two months.
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More teams counted than in previous years for the annual tally
Efforts to assist the homeless population have included the launch of Equal Access Shelter in November 2022, a ‘one stop shop’ providing a single entry point for those needing help with rent, along with the launch of MAP in 2021, a mobile access partnership providing shower, toilet and laundry access for the homeless population.
Kent Ivey, a homeless man in Topeka, was housed until November 2022 but lost it due to unforeseen circumstances. Ivey formerly lived in the once prominent tent city in North Topeka. The city liberated Tent City on April 4 and May 10 in 2022.
“Since COVID, things have been good, but before, if you were hungry, you were screwed up,” Ivey said.
After the demolition of the Tent City, homelessness spread throughout the city. By Wednesday, 10 zoning crews were out of the headcount, which was “more than normal,” Williams-Gatson said. Generally seven or eight teams are formed.
The shared trauma within the homeless community means there is still work to be done
Matt Baldwin, homelessness case manager for Valeo Behavioral Health, stressed that much work remains to be done.
“One thing that everyone out there shares is trauma. So, what can we do to treat that more? What can we do prevention with that? What can we do to support people more?” Baldwin said. “And obviously affordable housing is important, and it’s a big deal, but if we can do more to heal people’s trauma and help them get back to work, that will only benefit this country as a whole.”
Baldwin said one of the things he would like to pitch to the city is transitional housing because “there are people out there who want to work.”
A proposal for a $5.7 million “small transitional home village” that could contain up to 200 beds for the homeless on the former site of the Topeka Tent City has been proposed to the Topeka City Council by Barry Feaker, former executive director of the Topeka Rescue Mission in July 2021.
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Last year, Feaker told the Capital-Journal, questions had since been raised about whether there might be better ways to approach the problems, and his idea hadn’t gained much momentum.
Matthew Jackson, a native of San Bernardino, California, said the process of receiving housing in Kansas is easier than he experienced in California.
“Sometimes I take things, but I try not to have everything with me all the time,” Jackson said. “Either it gets stolen or I’ll lose it. I just try to be light so it’s easier to get things done.”
Jackson said, “Don’t be afraid to ask for help, whatever you’re going through.”
Keishera is most recently the business reporter for the Topeka Capital-Journal. She can be reached at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @Lately_KT.