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Sunday, June 04, 2006

how long is temporary?

Since April, I've been working with a group of people who want to make a change here in Wichita. On an average night, Wichita has about 700 homeless people. All the shelters in the city have a total of about 350 beds, leaving another 350 people to sleep under bridges, over grates, in dark alleys, or wherever they can find a place for the night. The city has had a plan in place since 1991 to provide temporary shelters on the coldest nights, so that nobody has to freeze to death.

But our little group, the Advocates to End Chronic Homelessness (AECH), think that 15 years of temporary shelters is too long. We have a vision to build a transitional facility with support services, to help homeless people get back on their feet. The facility will be open 24/7 and will be available to all who need what it can provide.

Some people have objected that the shelter is not needed because Wichita does not really have a homeless problem. By the numbers, less than 1/4 of 1% of Wichita residents are homeless, and half of those can already find shelter on a given night. Statistically speaking, this is not a significant problem. But we are not talking about statistics. These are human beings, created in the image of God. They are not just "a problem" that we can simply sweep under the rug. Every homeless person is someone's brother or sister, someone's daughter or son, someone's friend.

They became homeless in a variety of ways. Some lost their jobs when their jobs were outsourced overseas. Some struggle with addiction to drugs or alcohol. Some could not transition back to civilian life after serving in combat in the military. Some have mental illnesses. Some are unable to function independently after growing up in a series of foster homes. Some have left an abusive marriage. Some have a past criminal record that hinders their job prospects even if they have turned their lives around. Some don't have the education or the skills to make themeselves useful in today's economy.

Some are battling more than one of these factors.

Most homeless people would rather not be homeless, but many of them lack the resources to make a change on their own. That's where the transitional facility comes in.

The plan is to not just provide more beds, but to make the resources available to help people take the necessary steps to improve their lives. AECH includes a number of both former and current homeless people who have provided valuable insights about what homeless people truly need.

None of the members of our group are naive enough to think that we will eliminate homelessness simply by building a new facility. But we recognize that our city has people whose basic needs are not being met. If we keep on doing what we've been doing for 15 years, things will never change. It's time to find new solutions.



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