Nearly 600 chronically homeless people live in Wichita, but a pilot program within the city's police department is working to reduce that number. KMUW’s Abigail Wilson has more...
A police car is parked outside of a compact two-story apartment building on Seneca Street. The car belongs to Officer Nate Schwiethale with the Homeless Outreach Team (H.O.T). He’s what you’d expect out of a police officer -- tall with a shaved head, wearing a bulletproof vest with a pistol strapped to his waistband.
Standing outside the vehicle, he’s here to check on a man named Tex.
“Tex was homeless for ten years or so. Has a disabling condition, you will see he can hardly walk, very low-functioning," Schwiethale says. "And he was homeless and in the parks all the time. Drinking beer every day. We ended up getting him signed up for Housing First and got him into the apartment. And we worked on his substance abuse and his drinking, which he still does a little bit here and there, but not like he used to.”
Tex’s apartment is small and decorated with tiny knick-knacks and treasures. He sits in a recliner facing the TV, wearing long johns and Wichita Wingnuts t-shirt. Housing First is a nationwide program that provides rent and utility assistance to place chronically homeless people in permanent rental housing.
"You're a lot happier now, aren't you?" Schwiethale asks Tex.
"Oh, shoot yeah," Tex says.
"When I picked you up you were depressed a lot, even went to the hospital a few times."
"Yeah, yeah...I had just got done drinking a beer, too, when you seen me. Over at the park."
"But I didn't arrest you on it, did I?"
"No, no," Tex says. "You just told me about the homeless program, and I told you I was underneath the bridge."
Since that day, Schwiethale has kept on eye on Tex. But the 51-year-old, who now lives on social security and sleeps on a bed instead of in a cardboard box, keeps an eye on his police officer friend as well.
“It's just...I loved being on the street. But I love being here, too," Tex says. "And I love having him running around. He's helped out I think 170 people already, what I counted. That I know because I've been tracking his ass.”
Tex’s numbers are a little low, but there’s no doubt the Homeless Outreach Team has helped a lot of homeless people in Wichita. They’ve gotten more than 300 people off the streets and into permanent housing through Housing First. And that's in just two years. The H.O.T team has been recognized both at a statewide and a national level for their efforts.
After leaving Tex’s apartment, we head to the Wichita Greyhound bus station. The Finding A Way Home Program has helped more than 100 people get off the streets by providing them with Greyhound bus tickets.
“It’s a program where we get donated dollars from the community, and it goes into an account," Schwiethale says. "If a homeless person calls us and they're transient and they've found a relative or a friend that they're trying to go live with, if we can verify that information, then we'll pay for their transportation cost to get there through Greyhound. And Greyhound gives us some pretty good discounts.”
Schweithale uses an empty, bare room at the station to talk privately with the people he’s helping out. The floors are concrete; the walls have bulging plaster from water damage. Across the room from Officer Schweithale, stands a 37-year-old homeless man named Daryl.
“I’m from North Carolina, but my family moved out here and I’ve been out here for two years,” Daryl says.
Daryl seems unsure of who to trust or what to do next. His hair is in a few tiny dreadlocks that stick out from his head. He rarely makes eye contact. Daryl came to the bus station hoping to get a ticket to California where a relative has agreed to take him in. The program will pay for his ticket.
“What does it mean to you that they’re able to help you and pay your way to go back and be with your family?"
“A lot," Daryl says. "I don’t think I would have survived on the streets. Especially in a place where you don’t know, I just thank God.”
Because of scheduling complications, Officer Schwiethale had to get Daryl a ticket for a bus departing in 24-hours. He takes Daryl, along with another homeless person to a shelter. He plans to pick Daryl up the following day.
“Both those guys, if they were to stay here, because of their mental illness, they would become one of the chronic homeless out here," Schwiethale says outside of the shelter. “And they have somewhere to go, so it's important that we get there as soon as possible before they get into that cycle of being homeless."
"Do you think you’ll see Daryl tomorrow?"
“I’m hoping," Schwiethale says. "I think he’ll be okay. But if he’s not here when I come tomorrow, I’ll hunt him down.”
Schwiethale says the idea for the Homeless Outreach Team goes back to around 2011. It all started when the police department saw an increase in the homeless population, as well as an increase in the number of homeless-related 911 calls regarding vagrancy, trespassing and panhandling.
“What I found out through being and officer for 14 years, is that trying to arrest your way out of homelessness wasn’t going to work, and it doesn’t work,” Schwiethale says.
The Wichita Police Department launched the Homeless Outreach Team two years ago. The city added three extra positions to the department. Schwiethale says this is the only part of the program that is funded by the city and that both parties have agreed that the program saves city funds by finding homeless people resources and diverting charges away from the court system.
“There's only three of us, and we're citywide," Schwiethale says. "We answer all of the 9-1-1 calls throughout the city that have to do with the homeless or vagrancy.”
And while his job duties may seem more applicable to a social worker than a police officer, he says the department and the homeless community have formed a healthy relationship.
“They love us. At first we were just the police when we first started and in the past, just like most cities, homeless and police didn't mesh together very well and were at odds oftentimes. So when we started this, there was probably a little bit of a trust factor.”
But as he finds more people like Daryl, who did make it to California, and others like Tex, he says he hopes to turn more lives around for Wichitans living on the streets and in shelters.
Want to find out more? Check out a supplemental feature that takes a look at United Way's Point In Time Homeless Count.
This story originally aired during Morning Edition on 03/18/2015
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