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Challenges Face Efforts To Providing Lasting Housing For Wichita's Homeless

Sean Sandefur

Each winter, dozens of homeless men are able to find a warm place to sleep at a shelter near downtown Wichita. It's run by Inter-Faith Ministries, a nonprofit that provides mats, blankets, and also dinner. But once spring sets in, the shelter is closed, and it’s often back to the streets for those who sleep there. KMUW’s Sean Sandefur reports on the difficult process of getting these men into a permanent home.

Sandy Swank, Inter-Faith Ministries' homeless services director, is jotting down the names of men who want to sleep at the organization's Warming Souls Winter Shelter overnight. They're each assigned a number, which correlates with a cushioned mat and blanket in a large room beside them. Inter-Faith has a separate facility for women. 

Swank has occupied a number of roles at the nonprofit for more than 25 years. She’s seen a lot of faces in that time, and says they’re mostly humble and grateful.

“They know that someone really cares enough to provide the food for them, and get to know them and spend some time with them," Swank says. "And that’s really important to these guys, because most of them don’t have anyone else out there.”  

This particular shelter is open during the five coldest months of the year, and will close at the end of March.

As for why it's not open year round, Swank says they’re on a tight budget. And Inter-Faith Ministries doesn’t want these men to get too comfortable—settling for 15 hours of walking during the day, and a plastic mat at night.

The goal is for them to follow a path similar to that of Jerry Wills.

"They know that someone really cares enough to provide the food for them, and get to know them and spend some time with them."

“I was one of the working homeless," Wills says. "So, I always had a job, but I always kind of couch-surfed. I was homeless at the Inter-Faith shelter for at least a year.”

That was 22 years ago, when Wills was an alcoholic. He used the services provided by Inter-Faith Ministries and other local agencies to get sober. That led to his current job as a case manager for the organization.

He helps keep track of homeless people, and encourages them to take advantage of any services they might need—services he needed two decades ago.

Swank was at the shelter the day Wills came looking for help.

“When he came in, he had really long hair, and he was looking really weird,” Swank says. "I just really liked him when he first came in. And you could tell there was this extraordinary person underneath all this crap he was carrying around with him. Eventually, we got to see the real guy, and he’s just been going full steam ahead ever since.”

Wills was able to successfully break the cycle of homelessness. It took him about a year. For some, it can be a decade or more. There can be a lot of barriers standing in the way of someone finding a permanent home: unemployment, substance abuse, physical and mental illness, criminal records, to name a few.

But, there are success stories. 

Credit Sean Sandefur / KMUW
Numbered mats and blankets await homeless individuals at an Inter-Faith Ministries shelter

Across the street at Inter-Faith Ministries’ offices, Executive Director Anne Corriston meets with a client who has successfully lived in an apartment for a full year.

“He kind of inspires me, because I am not as neat as a pin,” Corriston says.

She's referring to the "spotless" apartment Randy Barkman calls home. He's a small guy with a big handlebar mustache.

“When I go into Randy’s place, I think, 'You know? This guy is doing really, really well,'” Corriston says.

Barkman has lived in each and every housing complex Inter-Faith Ministries has to offer.

“I [was] homeless off and on from 2003 until 2015," he says. "You gotta learn real quick on the street life. That’s where the drugs and alcohol come into play.”

Barkman says his alcohol abuse escalated quickly once he was homeless. He’s also bipolar and has depression. Corriston, who’s worked closely with him over the years, says she saw something finally change in him.

“Randy made a change because he decided he was tired of the old life, and he wanted to be successful," Corriston says. "He’s got a lot of help. He’s got a lot of support. But, ultimately, that light switched on in Randy. And he had to switch the light on himself.”

Because of his alcohol abuse, it took Barkman more than a decade to make that decision, and he’s far from alone. According to a 2010 report from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, roughly 34 percent of homeless people nationwide have substance abuse issues and 26 percent have a mental illness. These rates are even higher among chronically homeless populations.

Barkman says he witnessed this firsthand.

“When I was drinking, I was self-medicating, like anybody else," he says. "I’ve been in and out of the hospitals—treatment—14 times.”

Barkman, who’s in his late 50s, says his age finally caught up with him, and he realized that if he didn’t make a change, he wouldn’t be around much longer. With the help of a case manager, he slowly began to put his life back together. He received help through Sedgwick County’s Comcare system, which provides mental health and substance abuse treatment at little or no cost. He has an apartment through the City of Wichita’s Housing First program, a nationwide initiative that provides apartments for the disabled or chronically homeless. He’s working odd jobs and will soon start to pay rent.

“We’re trying to get him enrolled in a senior employment program, where he could maybe do part-time work doing some outdoor landscaping," Corriston says. "But, the way I see Randy right now, I think his future is as bright as it’s ever been since I first met him.”

That’s the mission of Inter-Faith Ministries. They send staff members out into the streets of Wichita on a weekly basis, talking with the homeless about their options for getting food, medication, and shelter.

Corriston says Wichita has a great network of services that are waiting to be used. But she says that many homeless people don’t want to ask for help, or don’t trust those who are offering it, and that can be frustrating.

“We can sign people up for housing, we can talk to them, but if they’re not following through with appointments, they’re not going to be successful,” Corriston says.

But she says the organization never gives up on people. Randy Barkman used Inter-Faith services for more than a decade before finally getting out of the cycle of homelessness, and Corriston thinks that’s possible for everyone.


Follow Sean Sandefur on Twitter @SeanSandefur

To contact KMUW News or to send in a news tip, reach us at news@kmuw.org.