TOPEKA, Kan. (KSNT) – Kansas lawmakers are trying to decide how far the state can go to address homelessness issues, as law enforcement officials say populations are being forced to move to the state’s largest cities.
The state’s Special Committee on Homelessness met Thursday, Nov. 9, to talk about the impact of homelessness and what issues local governments are facing.
Some lawmakers noted the issue is forcing some homeless people into other cities.
“People are coming voluntarily to Lawrence … people are being transported,” said Rep. Susan Humphries, R-Wichita.
Lawrence is the county seat of Douglas County and home to more than 95,000 Kansans. County officials have made moves to accommodate the city’s homeless population. However, business owners fear housing won’t be enough to address other issues the community struggles with. That includes unprovoked attacks, according to businesswoman Sarah Hill-Nelson.
Hill-Nelson is the CEO of The Bowersock Mills and Power Company, which operates a hydroelectric power plant in Lawrence.
“After I got chased and spit on in my car, and I asked LPD what I can do to keep myself and my staff safe going to and from work. They told me that I needed to carry a gun,” Hill-Nelson shared with lawmakers on the committee.
Kansas law enforcement officers said that homeless people are being pushed to ‘larger cities’ in the state.
Sgt. Matt Rose, who works with the Topeka Police Department’s homelessness unit, said people are “promised” help but find out that resources are low.
“When someone in a different agency gets tired of dealing with a certain individual, it’s not uncommon. I’m not going to name names of agencies, or however, for them to be driven to the county line and dropped off to where they can find more resources,” Rose explained. “Then, they get there and find out the resources they were promised don’t exist and, then, they’re stuck.”
“And then trying to reconnect them with services that were once promised that don’t actually exist, we end up with rising homeless populations in our larger cities,” he continued.
Hill-Nelson said the homeless show up “without any connections.” She recounted a story she was told by a friend who operates a bar in Lawrence.
“A gal showed up in his bar, and she was like, ‘Hey, can I use your bathroom,’ and she said, ‘I just showed up today. I got out of a jail in Liberal, and they handed me a bus ticket to Lawrence,'” she said.
Hill-Nelson expressed concerns with building more housing for homeless people, arguing that, that there’s “unlimited compassion but limited resources.”
“We do worry,” she said. “Like, if you build it, they will come. We have huge numbers of people in our community that have very serious drug problems, so that has to be the first thing.”
“If Lawrence just starts building all this housing, I don’t think we have the funding to provide the mental health and drug treatment that is necessary to make that function,” Hill-Nelson explained.
Concerns over drug use by homeless people were echoed by fellow Lawrence business owner David Hawley. Hawley, who owns Papa Keno’s Pizzeria on Third Street, pointed to how drug use and mental health issues among homeless populations are impacting communities.
“Stop enabling it so they can stay on the streets. Use drugs. Break the law,” Hawley said.
WHAT’S HAPPENING IN TOPEKA?
- Topeka police are working with downtown businesses to set up cameras as part of their “real-time crime” initiative.
- Task force uses “neighborhood watch”-style methods to collect data on incidents. ‘Heat maps’ are created for law enforcement to help with response efforts.
- Task force officials say “no camping” signs help with enforcing local ordinance
Seth Wagoner, Chief Executive Officer/Chief Fiscal Officer of AIM Strategies, a private equity firm in Topeka, testified about the issues they’re facing downtown.
Wagoner chairs the downtown “Clean and Safe Task Force,” a city initiative that kicked off in June.
Around that time, Wagoner said the downtown area experienced issues they weren’t experiencing “four years ago.” He said this includes a “tremendous amount of misdemeanor crime,” like broken windows, theft and business disruption.
“People bursting into our restaurants, throwing things at our employees, sitting at tables, threatening our employees…,” Wagoner said.
Wagoner also noted incidents of “indecent exposure.”
“There is a splash park that attracts a lot of children,” he said. “We had incidents where people were exposing themselves at the plaza in front of these children.”
After that, Wagoner said his group started tracking every incident in downtown Topeka, similar to a neighborhood watch group. He said businesses can email the task force to notify them of any issues they encounter.
Wagoner said he produces “heat maps” from the information collected to show where the activity is and turns them over to police on the task force.
“People aren’t calling the police if somebody breaks a window. They aren’t calling the police if somebody’s defecating in front of their building. But we started tracking all those incidents and trying to get people involved,” Wagoner explained.
An ongoing project is setting up cameras downtown, according to Wagoner. He said the task force is working with the Topeka Police Department on their “real-time crime” initiative. It allows them access to some of the private cameras from downtown businesses so they can better respond to incidents that happen.
“I will say, over the last 30 to 45 days, it’s been very peaceful in downtown Topeka,” he said. “I used to have people coming into our establishments almost every day. In the last six weeks, I’ve only had two incidents of people coming into our businesses, and it’s been a welcome change.”
Wagoner said one of the task force’s goals was to make downtown a “cleaner” place. He said “a lot of people” were living and hanging out in downtown alleys. His organization claims to have removed 3,800 pounds of trash. The second goal was “partnering with law enforcement.” Wagoner said they’ve “upped their patrols” in the downtown area.
“They expressed to us that they were having trouble enforcing a ‘no camping’ ordinance because there weren’t signs that had the ordinance posted throughout downtown Topeka,” he explained. “Now, you will see many of those signs posted throughout downtown, including on the downtown plaza.”
Wagoner said his group has also looked at ways to identify people downtown. He said there’s a range of people, some of which are “not good.”
“I had one particular person threaten my employees with a knife,” Wagoner said. “We have another group of people that, obviously, had mental health issues. We actually went out, met them, talked to them, found out who they were.”
He explained to the committee that identifying who they were dealing with allowed them to redirect people to the resources they needed.
“Then, when they would come in and we would report to the police or whoever. Obviously, for the gentleman that threatened my employee with a knife, the punishment for that person would be different than someone who has mental health issues, where we could call Valeo and say, ‘Hey, this person’s coming to you,'” Wagoner said.
“IT’S GOING TO TAKE EVERYBODY”
- “Housing” is a priority, but business owners warn of not addressing other issues, like mental health and drug use, first.
- Homelessness is hard to track. Numbers recorded by local governments are likely “higher.”
- Democratic representative raises questions about whether access to healthcare could be a barrier to getting treatment services for people suffering from mental health disorders
- Republican senator pushes to address concerns over enforcing laws related to illegal drug use
Lawrence business owners are hoping to look at similar solutions for their area. Hawley said that people in his community are working with local government officials to solve homeless issues in the city. However, he signaled it would be a team effort.
“I think it’s going to take everybody coming together to figure out what’s the best solution,” Hawley said. “The biggest problem we have right now with the encampments is that it’s not safe for people inside the encampments.”
Hawley mentioned a shelter housing 60 people at a time. However, he said it has room for 125. Business owners noted some people aren’t willing to take advantage of the resources available to them.
“You have people that are inside the sanction camps, then you have people who refuse to be inside there living just outside,” Hawley said.
Hawley said the solutions that have been proposed include increasing the amount of beds, drug and alcohol treatment, and mental health services.
“I, in the last year, have gotten together with some businessmen in Lawrence, and we are trying to open up a substance use disorder treatment facility in Lawrence by taking an existing hotel and converting it into a 60-bed facility to try and deal with the situation,” he said.
According to the businessman, hundreds of homeless people are congregating in Lawrence.
The 2022 numbers showed that Douglas County had 81 unsheltered individuals at that time. More recently, the City’s Housing Initiatives Division determined there are 300-350 unsheltered individuals in the community, estimating that the number is “likely higher” since there may be others whom local officials have yet to contact.
While Hawley noted the importance of housing, he warned of not taking care of other issues first.
“Housing is not going to be a solution until you deal with the drugs and alcohol and the mental health aspect,” Hawley said. “You can put somebody inside four walls, but without taking care of those issues, you’re not going to have success.”
Local officials admitted it’s difficult to track how many people are experiencing homelessness.
“Everybody has to identify the people that we serve for us to be successful,” Hawley said. “Our compassion is unlimited, but our resources are not.”
“We’re going to need the help from the neighboring communities to return people back to where they have their support, or from where they came from, so that we can focus and have enough services to take care of the people with connections to our community,” Hawley continued. “Otherwise, this number is going to continue to swell. We’re going to continue to have a flood of people coming in and never enough resources to solve the issue.”
MEDICAID EXPANSION PUSH?
On the state level, a survey from the Kansas Statewide Homeless Coalition found 2,397 people were homeless in one night in Kansas in 2022.
Christina Ashie Guidry, Director of Resource Allocation for United Community Services of Johnson County (UCS JoCo), presented numbers on behalf of the Kansas Statewide Homeless Coalition. Ashie Guidry noted a “significant increase” in homelessness and a “significant increase” in “highly visible” homelessness over the past 10 years.
In addition to affordable housing barriers, Guidry said medical debt could also be a driver for homelessness.
Rep. Heather Meyer, D-Overland Park, sparked the conversation. Meyer asked whether or not access to services could be an issue for people without Medicaid, Medicare or private health insurance.
“Do you believe, in your experience, if they were able to receive health insurance of some type that that would decrease their reliance on the system as a whole,” Meyer asked.
“In Kansas, Medicaid eligibility for a caregiver plus two children, you have to earn less than $9,500 a year,” Guidry replied. “So, if you don’t have underage children, then qualifying for Medicaid even becomes a virtual impossibility.”
“Many, many, many of the people that we see don’t make little enough. 55% of them have income to qualify for Medicaid and certainly aren’t making enough to qualify for their own health insurance, and that is a huge driver,” she continued. “Medical debt is a huge driver into eviction and homelessness. And, inability to access mental health substance use and physical health services is a primary reason that at least 30% of the folks we encounter are experiencing homelessness.”
MENTAL HEALTH AND DRUG USE
During the committee meeting, business owners also pushed for several initiatives, including “stricter ordinances” on panhandling. Some people testifying argued it enables people instead of encouraging them to find the help they need.
“We have to have stricter ordinances with panhandling so that they have the ability to go and get those services instead of enabling them to stay in the downtown, where they’re not going to be able to get the help that they need,” Hawley argued.
“We talked about having a central hub of services,” Hawley said. “If we had a one-stop shop, a location to have access to, not necessarily all the services, but people who are knowledgeable about these services and can put them into contact with these organizations.”
Hill-Nelson agreed with the sentiment, pushing for a “statewide education campaign” on the issue. The businesswoman also expressed concern over whether laws surrounding illegal drug use, like fentanyl and meth use, were being enforced.
It could be one of the issues lawmakers address at the state level.
Sen. Rick Kloos, R-Berryton, commented on the situation during the meeting.
“No one’s above the law, and we got to deal with that aspect as we move forward,” Kloos said.