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In Topeka and all of Kansas, homelessness on the rise

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In Topeka and all of Kansas, homelessness on the rise

Jun 14, 2024 | 4:30 pm ET
By Rachel Mipro
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In Topeka and all of Kansas, homelessness on the rise
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A 2023 annual state count showed an 10% increase in people experiencing homelessness from 2022. Advocates blame factors such as rising housing costs and little resources in rural areas. (Lily O'Shea Becker/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Another legislative session ended without action on Kansas’ homelessness problem, even as the city outside the statehouse walls reported a spike in rates of unhoused people.

Homelessness reform advocates urge more awareness and action. 

Shanae Eggert with the Kansas Statewide Homeless Coalition said more mitigation measures needed to be put into place. Eggert said that between January to May, the coalition’s system has identified 984 new people in the organization’s 101 county coverage area struggling with homelessness. 

“Let’s stop people from becoming homeless in the first place. I feel like that would be easier to pass,” Eggert said. “Not saying we shouldn’t focus on those who are actively experiencing homelessness, but there’s a lack of focus for those who are becoming homeless, and it’s  first-time homeless. It’s people who are every day, it’s us, who are just one paycheck away from becoming homeless. And that’s what our data is showing us, that the inflow is huge monthly.”

During the 2024 session, lawmakers on the House Committee on Welfare Reform, who were tasked with tackling the state’s homelessness problem, failed to pass any legislation after attempting to criminalize the state’s unhoused population for the second year in a row. 

In 2023, committee lawmakers heard a bill criminalizing homeless people, which fizzled after public outcry. 

This session, committee chairman Rep. Francis Awerkamp, a St. Marys Republican, characterized state homelessness as not “a massive issue,” but “certainly something we need to consider addressing.”

The one piece of in-committee legislation that gained traction this year, Senate Bill 542, would have created a Kansas Department of Aging and Disability Services-administered program to address homelessness on the local level.

The one-year allocation of $40 million in fiscal year 2025 would provide Kansas local governments with grants to build or improve shelters and homelessness services but lawmakers folded in a mandate that local ordinances on camping and vagrancy be enforced. The bill fizzled in committee without receiving a vote.

“The federal government doesn’t fund everything,” said the coalition’s executive director, Christy McMurphy. “The state could fill some gaps for us.”

Andy Brown, KDADS deputy secretary for programs, pointed to rising housing costs and housing instability. 

“Most communities in Kansas, if you drive down the street or go by the ramp, you’re going to see some unsheltered homeless folks,” Brown said. “Where you see those unsheltered homeless folks, it means that there are not enough services in that particular community. That’s true across the nation, it’s not unique to Kansas. But we definitely have the ability to potentially invest more into those types of services in order to reduce our unsheltered population.” 

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s 2023 Annual Homelessness Assessment Report estimated the state had 2,636 people experiencing homelessness, marking a 10% increase from 2022. Three years of Point in Time surveys documented a similar increase, though advocates warn the count uses data obtained from a one-day survey. 

Following public demand, Topeka released its 2024 PIT count early. The report documents Shawnee County’s homeless population has increased by 125 people since 2023, with 537 people experiencing homelessness. In 2023, the city had 412 documented homeless people. The year before, it had 365. 

Eggert characterized the Point in Time data collection as accurate, but not a “true count” of the extent of homelessness. The annual survey counts sheltered and unsheltered people experiencing homelessness on a single night in January, using volunteer resources. 

“If there wasn’t even a volunteer worker in a county, then that county, its numbers aren’t going to get counted,” Eggert said. “The whole count is volunteer-based, and it’s based on being able to find people. If they’re homeless and they stayed at their parents house because it was too cold that night which usually is cold during the PIT count — then they didn’t get counted, even though the next day they’re going to be back on the streets.” 

The 2021 Kansas count found 783 people in shelters across the state. In 2022, 929 people were counted, 668 sheltered and 261 unsheltered. In 2023, the survey found 1,082 people, 806 sheltered and 276 unsheltered. 

McMurphy said factors such as high rent and low wages contributed to the problem, especially in rural countries that often lack shelter resources.

“There’s no outreach really going to rural Kansas, our smaller communities,” McMurphy said.