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Wichita proposes to buy former Park Elementary School to use as homeless shelter

Hugo Phan
Park Elementary in the Midtown neighborhood closed earlier this year, alongside five other Wichita Public Schools.

The city hopes to use the building as an emergency shelter this coming winter, but the school district still needs to vote on the sale. 

Wichita wants to convert the former Park Elementary school into a new shelter for people who are homeless.

For months, the city has been seeking a location for what it calls a multiagency center: a facility with emergency shelter beds, affordable housing units and social services.

Now, the city has settled on the former school at 9th and Main. Wichita Public Schools shuttered Park Elementary earlier this year as the district faced a $42 million budget deficit.

“Given its close proximity to multiple homeless service providers, the location is ideal for referrals and coordinated services, easy access and mobility for those needing services and collaboration among agencies,” Assistant City Manager Troy Anderson said.

“The project is also more financially feasible as the property will be effectively donated to the city and appears to be readily adaptable to reuse.”

The city hopes to get the building ready for use as an emergency shelter this winter. Last year, Wichita scrambled to find an emergency, no-barrier winter shelter. Neighbors protested the building the city selected at 21st and Grove, and Wichita promised it wouldn’t bring the shelter back this year.

The Wichita school board will vote on the sale of the property to the city on Monday. Wichita will pay a “nominal” fee, Anderson said. He did not specify how much.

“I believe this project is a tremendous opportunity to be a good stewards of our public tax dollars,” School Board President Stan Reeser said. “... Wichita taxpayers constructed the building as an educational center. While the building grounds will no longer be served as a school, another tax-supported entity will operate the facility to serve and care for our community’s unhoused residents.”

The city did not provide an estimate of the total capital cost of buying and renovating the building. The city has previously committed $20 million to the project, from sources such as the city’s COVID relief funds and the sale of its public housing units.

Anderson estimates the facility could hold 150 to 200 emergency shelter beds in communal areas, more than the 100 initially planned for the multiagency center.

But several funding sources have fallen through, including a $20 million request the city made to the state legislature this winter. As a result, other parts of the project are smaller than initially planned.

Anderson estimates the site could hold 50 affordable housing units, though the city initially wanted more than 200. And he added the property could hold just 20 to 25 non-congregate beds, which are private beds instead of communal sleeping quarters. The city had initially wanted 50 non-congregate beds.

“Some of the feedback that we've received from our community partners is trying to maximize that number of congregate shelter bed space,” Anderson said. “And so ... that's been part of our primary focus.”

Federal funding options for congregate emergency shelters are extremely limited. Providers and people experiencing homelessness have expressed concerns about insufficient shelter beds, especially for women.

Neighbors in Midtown learned about the planned facility Wednesday night, when City Council member Maggie Ballard knocked on doors in the neighborhood. Makayla Welch is the president of the Historic Midtown Citizens Association.

She says her neighborhood will accept and support the shelter, but feels it is owed increased investment from the city and county in return: whether that be improved sidewalks, increased trash service or protection of property taxes in the area. Midtown is already home to HumanKind’s shelter known as The Inn and the Lord’s Diner.

“You've asked a lot from Midtown for a very long time,” Welch said. “I will still say I'm more convinced than ever that it's better for the city if we spread out the challenges that will come with this.”

Welch even suggested instituting a district like a TIF in her neighborhood, where property tax growth is used to fund specific investments instead of going to normal tax collection.

“You want Midtown to do this for you, we want the city to do this for us. And I think it's a fair trade off,” Welch said.

Homelessness services located near the proposed location of the multi-agency center.
City of Wichita
Homelessness services located near the proposed location of the multi-agency center.

Members of the private sector showed their support for the project, as well. Jeff Fluhr with Wichita’s Greater Wichita Partnership attended the announcement of the center’s location. He said the city’s response to the homelessness crisis is a factor as the organization works to attract companies and grow the city’s economy.

“It’s a reflection of our community,” Fluhr said. “... Sometimes when people need assistance and need help, how we respond to that’s really important.”

“This is an opportunity for us to demonstrate the incredible abilities of our community to step in when people need that assistance to help meet those needs.”

The city will host a community meeting at the Advanced Learning Library on Saturday from 2-4 p.m. to discuss the project. Staff said it will provide more information about plans for the facility and costs at the meeting.

Celia Hack is a general assignment reporter for KMUW. Before KMUW, she worked at The Wichita Beacon covering local government and as a freelancer for The Shawnee Mission Post and the Kansas Leadership Center’s The Journal. She is originally from Westwood, Kansas, but Wichita is her home now.