WICHITA, Kan. (KSNW) — The City of Wichita is addressing citizens’ concerns after several complaints heaps of trash and debris were the result of homeless persons gathering up and down the Arkansas River.

Due to federal law, the City cannot remove items immediately. Instead, signs can be seen next to several homeless encampments giving those who reside there 72 hours to remove their things before they are taken away.

According to the Wichita Police Department’s Homeless Outreach Team (H.O.T.) founder Nate Schwiethale, the lessening of COVID-19 restrictions and concerns has led to homelessness becoming much more visible throughout Wichita.

“People are seeing ’em more, and they’re camping out more that was due to the concerns over COVID-19 and individuals not wanting to stay in a shelter for fear of getting COVID,” Schweithale said.

Schwiethale says the total number of homeless persons in Wichita increased this past year by 11.5%, while the number of unsheltered persons in Wichita increased by 8%.

“We did an improved count that we never did before. We reached 35 more locations, so we were actually getting a more accurate count,” Schwiethale said.

This comes as federally funded pandemic relief is running out. This past year, the City of Wichita gave HumanKind Ministries $250,000 to keep its 24-hour shelter running. Next winter, that money will be gone.

Meanwhile, the City has pushed for two new homelessness prevention initiatives in the past few weeks alone. In late December 2022, Wichita City Council approved $5 million towards what Mayor Brandon Whipple calls a “one-stop-shop” to combat homelessness.

“We’ve had some discussions about, you know, in the past about possibly buying an asset and try to fill the gap with services, and we’re talking to our housing experts about that,” Mayor Whipple said.

On Jan. 1, the Wichita Housing Authority launched a landlord initiative program (WHALIP) that provides monetary incentives to landlords who rent to those using housing vouchers.

“Brand new landlords to Section 8 who sign up will get up to $1,000 of new landlord bonuses,” Mayor Whipple said. “Landlords who have participated in Section 8 prior, but not recently, will receive a $500 bonus.”

As part of this year’s city budget, the Homeless Outreach Team will receive funding for 11 additional social workers to respond to mental health crises. Since the team was started in 2013, its “Finding a Way Home” program has brought 75 people out of homelessness.