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Recent cold snaps have killed at least 5 homeless people in Wichita

Carla Eckels

Advocates to End Chronic Homelessness said the number of deaths is more than it has seen in recent memory in a two-month span.

At least five homeless people have died during recent cold snaps this year, according to Wichita homeless advocates.

Advocates to End Chronic Homelessness said the number of deaths is more than it has seen in recent memory in a two-month span.

Kathy Bowles is a nurse who works with a number of homeless outreach groups, including the ICT Street Team. She attributed the deaths to some homeless people not being willing or able to utilize shelter spaces.

“There’s fewer and fewer people willing to go to the shelter for a long list of reasons,” Bowles said. “So I don’t know if this is the new norm.

“The pandemic doesn’t help. I know that’s part of why some of the people don’t want to go to the shelter, but we’re not doing what we need to be doing. People shouldn’t be outside freezing to death.”

She said some of the reasons why people won’t seek shelter is because of rules at some of the shelters, not being able to store their belongings, or mental health reasons.

“Some of our folks can not just mentally tolerate being in a setting with 100 other people,” Bowles said. “They just can’t. PTSD, schizophrenia, bipolar, whatever their issue is they just can not tolerate it.”

Wichita Police officers with the homeless outreach team said they’re also having the same issue getting people into shelters.

“It’s a constant battle for us,” Officer Nate Schwiethale said.

Schwiethale said he’s personally seen at least two people who have died due to the cold this year. He reports those deaths to Bowles, who runs the city’s annual homeless persons memorial.

Bowles said without adequate help, especially with mental health and substance abuse issues, more people will die.

“We need social workers, we don’t have very many,” she said. “Mental health case workers, we don’t have that many.

“There’s really no ability for people who actually want to get off street drugs, there’s nowhere for them to go. There’s a three- to six-month waiting list if you’re uninsured to have inpatient drug counseling.”

Those working to help the homeless seek shelter also say they have witnessed even more people with frostbite or other issues related to the cold.

Bowles said people who want to help someone in need, or see someone in the cold, should contact an area homeless group. Bowles also encouraged donating winter weather gear to those groups to be distributed.

Kylie Cameron (she/her) is a general assignment reporter for KMUW. Before KMUW, Kylie was a digital producer at KWCH, and served as editor in chief of The Sunflower at Wichita State. You can follow her on Twitter @bykyliecameron.