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City to end use of costly ‘eviction mercenaries’ to clear homeless camps in Wichita parks

A caravan of a homeless couple’s possessions inched north along the Arkansas River late last year.
Joe Stumpe
The Active Age
A caravan of a homeless couple’s possessions inched north along the Arkansas River late last year.

The city of Wichita says it will stop using outside contractors to clear homeless camps in city parks and, while still clearing camps with city workers, move to an approach that it hopes will be more likely to connect people with services that will help them move into housing.

Along walking trails, hidden in the thorny shadows, among cottonwoods and graffiti, many in Wichita’s homeless community have taken up shelter in Wichita’s more than 5,000 acres of parkland.

The city of Wichita has increasingly taken steps to disrupt their lives, posting eviction notices on their tents and ordering private contractors to remove their belongings if they aren’t gone within 72 hours. The city calls the practice “outsourced homeless camp cleanups.” New research shows it can have devastating health impacts on homeless people.

During a 12-month stretch starting in April 2022, the city’s parks department paid private contractors $140,000 to clear 139 campsites. City maintenance workers cleared an additional 100 camps.

The push did not stop people from camping in city parks. In fact, camps often pop back up in the same spot that was just cleared or a few feet away. But it did cost the city $835 to $5,585 per site, depending on the size.

In interviews, city officials acknowledged for the first time this month that the cleanups are counterproductive, overly expensive and out of step with the city’s goal of connecting people experiencing homelessness with social services. They also told The Eagle that the city plans to reverse course on the crackdown on public camping, sending social workers into the field instead of private contractors.

Under the existing practice, Wichita Park and Recreation — using a Wichita Police Department contract for outsourced homeless camp cleanups — sends in private contractors to remove campsites while police Homeless Outreach Team officers provide security to landscape workers with no formal training in social services.

In the first three months of the year, the Park and Recreation Department used its entire $50,000 annual budget for outsourced cleanups — the second year in a row the department has spent more than planned on homeless camp cleanups.

Last year, Park and Recreation spent $76,640 on 72 outsourced homeless camp cleanups, far beyond its $50,000 budget.

This year, Park and Recreation spent more than half of its annual budget in January, when temperatures dipped into single digits. By March, the park department had spent $63,375.05. Any expenditures above the budgeted $50,000 amount must be approved by Parks and Recreation Director Troy Houtman.

It’s unclear how much more has been spent since March. An office manager for Professional Landscaping Services, which signed its contract in October, said the city requested 12 homeless camp cleanups this week alone.

“It hasn’t been prioritized over any other expenditure, but this issue tends to get more awareness from residents,” a city spokesperson said in a written response to questions for Houtman. “We set aside dollars each year for cleanups and recently have seen more demand based on increased complaints from residents and businesses and high levels of trash.”

After The Eagle asked about cost overruns on the city’s outsourced homeless camp cleanups, City Manager Robert Layton said the city is planning to change course.

“I don’t think the right way of dealing with this going forward is to continue to contract out,” Layton said. “I’ve had a group of department folks who have been working on that for a little while now, and I’m waiting to get a recommendation back on how to proceed.”

Layton said the plan will likely include moving park cleanup back in-house, meaning city workers will do the job.

“I’ve tasked a committee of staff members to look at a different approach to cleanups, not so much from a procedural standpoint, but basically the city assuming all responsibility,” Layton said. “I’m not an expert, so I can’t tell you all the reasons why the number of encampments has increased over the last year and a half or so. But it’s noticeable, it’s a fact and we’re going to have to deal with that issue in a way that still is respectful of those that are in encampments.”


For decades, the city of Wichita and Sedgwick County government have had long-range strategic plans to curb homelessness in the state’s largest city. And a joint task force is working on a new plan right now.

All of those plans have called for helping homeless people secure housing, shelter space and social services. None of them have called for camping bans, tent evictions or other policies that destabilize the lives of already vulnerable people, many with mental illness or addictions.

Chase Billingham, an urban sociologist and Wichita State associate professor who has written extensively on the city’s policies toward homeless people in public spaces, said Wichita-area elected officials often give lip service to helping homeless people but rarely follow through.

More often, they enact policies aimed at making homeless people’s lives more difficult, he said.

“What is most alarming about this revelation is the disconnect between the rhetoric of local leaders regarding the issue of homelessness and the reality of the strategies they use to address it,” Billingham said.

He noted that city leaders on all sides of the political spectrum praise the work of the police department’s Homeless Outreach Team. But that work includes evicting homeless people from public spaces and throwing away their possessions, something he said they would rather not take credit for funding.

“At no point has there been a public discussion about spending taxpayer money to hire a squad of eviction mercenaries to kick unhoused people off of public land,” he said.

It’s not clear when exactly the city plans to stop outsourcing homeless cleanups.

Tabitha Gifford, office manager for Professional Landscaping Services, said the company has not been informed of a decision to move the cleanups in-house.

“Just this week, we have 12 sites to be done,” she said. “It varies week by week.”

Gifford described the work as less like a mercenary than a public service.

“We’ve been getting a lot of compliments from general citizens, who will sometimes see us doing it and stop by and thank us for doing it,” she said.

Gifford said the company gets a list of locations to clear from the Wichita Police Department.

“It’s been running really smoothly for us, to be honest,” Gifford said. She said the cost of cleanups covers labor, fuel and dump fees.

Andy Barnard, owner of Boulevard Construction Group, the other vendor used by the city for homeless camp cleanups, expressed confusion about the terms of his agreement, which he said started three or four years ago. He said his contract ended last year and he only contracts for the city on “special assignments.”

“I’m a secondary on it,” Barnard said. “They don’t usually exercise that.”

“It’s all complaint driven,” Barnard said. “A biker, walker or something came across something and then they notify you based on complaints that the police went and addressed or whatever. So you usually come on an area, sometimes it’s spread more than a thousand feet, any amount of trash that you can imagine.”

Barnard said, based on his experience, homeless camps in Wichita public property are an increasing problem.

“They intimidate people that are walking or riding their bikes,” he said. “They intimidate just the general person trying to use the parks for the general reason that they were meant to be used, and when they come upon these people or these camps or whatever, I can see how they can be intimidated or a little bit scared for their safety.”


Wichita’s city manager said the money spent on expensive homeless cleanups would be better spent trying to address the underlying causes of homelessness.

“If we can get caseworkers who can establish the right relationships, assess the situation and get the right kind of resources to bear on those individuals, we’ll take care of the cleanup costs because those will go down over time,” Layton said. “Why do we continue to put more and more money into cleanup and not address — all you’re doing is addressing the symptom, not the underlying cause.”

Sally Stang, Wichita’s housing and community services director, said the city is in the process of using federal grant funding to send out teams of case workers, social worker interns and peer-support specialists who have experienced homelessness.

“Every community I’ve engaged with has the same kind of issue,” Stang said. “All of this wasted resources doing these cleanups could be providing additional assistance to help people, when you find the right balance.”

Stang said the city is in a challenging position because some landlords are unwilling to accept the city’s rental assistance funding that could help connect homeless people with stable housing. “We’re trying to attack this from multiple angles,” Stang said.

“We recognize we’re never going to end homelessness. People are always going to be entering into homelessness. Life happens, right? And the whole idea of getting to functional zero is to have a homeless ecosystem that has more people moving out of homelessness than coming in, so shelter will always be required.”

“It’s not working,” Vice Mayor Mike Hoheisel said of the outsourced homeless camp cleanups.

Instead, Hoheisel said he supports legalizing camping in designated areas in Wichita, similar to how Kansas allows camping at state parks. He said he has asked Layton to look into potential campsite locations.

“We don’t want to take up high-traffic parkland that we have, you know, places that people go and play pickleball and other things, but if we do have designated areas, we can focus services there, we can have security there. We could get social workers out there. But I think one of the major hurdles we’re going to find in this is local residents who don’t want designated camps close to where they live. So we’re looking into it.

“We have to have something to stop these from popping up in neighborhoods and private property,” Hoheisel said. “I’ve gone out after some of the cleanups, and you’ll find thirty dirty needles from a campsite. And sometimes these campsites are in the middle of neighborhoods where children are playing.”

Stang, the housing director, said sanctioned homeless camps have not been a success in other major cities. She said there’s good reason homeless people sometimes set up group campsites.

“There’s safety in numbers,” she said. “So when people do group campsites, they’re generally with people that they trust, rather than being entirely alone.”

When the camps are split up, sometimes those groups splinter into smaller groups that set up camp elsewhere.

“We’re not seeing as many of the big campsites anymore,” Hoheisel said. “It’s the small one, the small groups. They’re smaller and there’s more of them.”


Camping on the city’s public property hasn’t always been illegal in Wichita.

At the request of former Wichita Police Chief Nelson Mosley, the City Council in 2013 unanimously adopted a camping ban on public property, which made it a misdemeanor offense with fines up to $500 or imprisonment of up to 30 days or 10 to 40 hours of community services for “indigent” individuals instead of a fine or jail time.

The purpose of the ordinance, Mosley said, was to “encourage a healthy safety standard for all citizens, promote healthy behaviors for campers, improve the quality of life of our citizens and keep Wichita a beautiful place to live, work and play.” It had the support and endorsement of several homeless service providers and influential Wichita Downtown Development Corp., Fidelity Bank and the Old Town Association.

A decade later, the latest research has found that displacing homeless people from campsites has devastating long-term health consequences for homeless people, including increases in overdoses, hospitalizations and infections.

A study published last month in the Journal of the American Medical Association led by Joshua Barocas, an infectious disease doctor and associate professor at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus, was highly critical of camping bans, homeless cleanups and other policies that displace homeless people. Regular displacement increases the odds of discontinuing medications, overdosing and needle-sharing.

“The big takeaway from our study is that camping bans, displacement, sweeps, clearances — whatever we’re going to call them — could lead to approximately 25 percent of deaths among people experiencing homelessness who use drugs over the next 10 years,” Barocas said in a video explaining his group’s findings. “That means that those cities that are implementing these types of policies have a direct effect on the health of these individuals.”

“To put it a different way, it means our states and our cities are literally killing people with this,” Barocas said in a recent interview with Denverite.

The Eagle sent the study to a city spokesperson and Houtman. City spokesperson Megan Lovely sent the following written statement in response:

“In order to best serve our unhoused population, we are looking at addressing the root causes of homelessness and working toward functional zero by utilizing case workers to connect with chronically unhoused residents to address the unique mental health, substance abuse and other needs this population faces.” Stang, the city’s housing director, was not shocked by the study’s findings.

“We look at reports all the time that show it’s more expensive to keep people homeless than it is to house them and provide them the wraparound services that they need,” Stang said. “But it’s hard to convince people who have funding to put the money ahead of it, if that makes sense

Chance Swaim covers investigations for The Wichita Eagle. His work has been recognized with national and local awards, including a George Polk Award for political reporting, a Betty Gage Holland Award for investigative reporting and two Victor Murdock Awards for journalistic excellence. Most recently, he was a finalist for the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting. You may contact him at cswaim@wichitaeagle.com or follow him on Twitter @byChanceSwaim.