Op-Ed: HOmelessness

Ryan Baty – Sedgwick County Commissioner

Should we care about the growing homelessness crisis in our community? 

The issue of homelessness is one of the most pressing matters for residents and local businesses in my district. Those working or visiting downtown Wichita, or the neighborhoods surrounding our core, will undoubtedly notice the number of homeless individuals encamped against buildings or walking up and down our streets. This harsh reality, that a growing number of our people are unhoused, is not indicative of a healthy community. Seeing real people facing real crises, in full public view, is a painful optic – and a costly reality.

Some of us are moved to concern because of compassion for vulnerable people. 

Others demand solutions because of frustration with a growing problem.

All can agree that the current situation is not acceptable in our community.   

Homelessness is complex. The influences contributing to this surge in numbers are broad – mental health, substance use, domestic violence, eviction, loss of job, lack of access to affordable housing – and individuals experiencing homelessness are high utilizers of public services such as EMS, 911, Fire, Jail, and our local hospitals. This is placing a significant burden on our systems and that comes with a growing economic cost to our taxpayers. 

So what is the solution? Collaboration and Commitment. 

Over the last year, we have seen significant efforts to collaborate on potential solutions. A homelessness task force was created that sought input from a wide variety of stakeholders, including local government, police, business, medical, faith and nonprofit organizations. The United Way’s Continuum of Care has engaged full throttle and helped to bring much-needed awareness around the topic and a strategy for progress. The City of Wichita has formulated a significant plan to develop shelter infrastructure, supportive housing capacity and co-located providers to better streamline services that meet these growing needs. All of this is on top of the work several organizations have already been doing in this space for many years. 

It’s all a much-needed step in the right direction. 

Even the state has a role to play in this collaborative effort. I’m incredibly grateful that our south-central legislative delegation, in a bi-partisan fashion, has engaged in the conversation and worked alongside local partners on potential solutions. A bill is currently moving its way through the State House that establishes a grant-funded program for local municipalities to develop homeless shelter facilities. This state-assisted opportunity is desperately needed for our community, as well as other municipalities across the state, to better manage our unhoused populations and connect them to more sustainable solutions.  

The current trajectory of homelessness we are facing in our community requires immediate action. This situation does not improve with a lack of action – in fact, it only gets worse – and so do the economic costs to our residents, businesses and taxpayers. Can we make progress in the growing homelessness crisis? Yes. I’m determined we can and working hard to convince others that we should commit to doing what is necessary for the health and viability of our community.  Our people, both housed and unhoused, are demanding solutions and I’m confident that the right pieces are finally coming together to deliver progress.

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