City Council approves emergency winter shelter after 3 hours of fiery public commentary

Matthew Kelly/

The Wichita City Council on Tuesday voted to approve a $685,000 package to support a no-barrier 24/7 emergency winter shelter for up to 250 people at 2220 E. 21st St., a city-owned property in Northeast Wichita that will be operated by HumanKind Ministries.

But before it did, it heard hours worth of passionate statements from people who live in the neighborhood and said the city had blindsided residents with last week’s announcement that the temporary shelter would operate near their homes and that decision makers were intentionally ignoring problems the shelter could bring into their community.

The shelter, which is taking over the space that formerly housed the Fundamental Learning Center, will be operated for 22 weeks using HumanKind Ministries’ entire $200,000 winter shelter budget but will need the rest of the money from the city’s ARPA funds for shelter and salary benefits, utilities, meals, snacks, security and more, said Sally Stang, Wichita’s director of housing and community services.

The site was selected, Stang said, after HumanKind — which for the past 20 years has provided emergency winter shelter from November to March — informed the city in August that its current shelters faced capacity challenges this winter. The city then began looking for an emergency solution and looked at eight sites, determining that none of them would meet a long list of requirements, including that it accommodate more than 200 people, had separate sleeping spaces for different genders, had adequate bathroom facilities and more.

The department was unable to find an appropriate space until in mid-October, Stang said, when it found out that the site at 2229 E. 21st St. was available. The decision was shared at a news conference on Thursday.

Since then, people in the neighborhood have been expressing concerns about safety in the neighborhood, especially since the new shelter would be operating near the Boys and Girls Clubs of South Central Kansas and the TOP Early Learning Center daycare.

But Stang told the council that the situation was desperate and a solution was needed now. The shelter needs to open as soon as possible.

“We do recognize the site on 21st Street is not ideal. It’s not ideal for the neighborhood. It’s not ideal for the unhoused population. It is not ideal for the service providers,” Stang said. “But at this point, we have not identified another location. And we have to come up with a solution for our unhoused Wichitans. These are our brothers, our mothers, our fathers, our brothers, our children. Many may have challenges, but that doesn’t mean we should be stepping away. It means we need to be providing more.”

The council heard on Tuesday that last winter, 48 unhoused people died on the streets in Wichita. If the shelter does not open, Stang said, HumanKind’s winter shelters would have space for 100 men and 44 women.

At the peak of last winter, 188 people were seeking shelter.

”. . . That means you’re almost guaranteeing that we might have another year where over 40 people die if they have to be turned around and they have no other option,” said Mayor Brandon Whipple at the meeting.

When the council opened the floor for public comment, it heard from more than 25 people — most of whom said they live and work in the area around the emergency shelter. They were pastors, community leaders and residents, and the comments continued for more than three hours.

Many of the speakers said that they felt betrayed that the facility was being dropped in their neighborhood with little notice. They accused the council of hiding their plans and dropping the city’s problems on their doorsteps. Many referenced the Evergy Power Poles constructed next to houses in northeast Wichita in 2018.

Several speakers asked the council to delay the vote until other options for the shelter could be investigated or more details could be worked out.

“I understand that humanity is a big deal, but in a city that has 116.5 square miles, this is the only block that you can find that can house this need?” one speaker said. “. . .I have two children that attend TOPS and if anything happened to them or anything happened to my children, It will be a direct reflection of decision that the board has made and HumanKind has made, because they are worried about 40 adults, and when we’re turning a blind eye to 215 children.”

Many of the speakers expressed skepticism that the shelter would be used only this winter and that it would remain in their neighborhood. They said the decision to put the shelter in their neighborhood without community discussion feels like just another instance of disrespect and disregard by decision makers.

Pastor Kneeland Brown from Tabernacle Bible Church in Wichita said that the people of District 1 were being made out to be heartless because they’re worried about having a homeless shelter in their neighborhood.

“This is fundamentally problematic because it backs people into a corner, where to concern themselves with their own community, they have to hate someone else or to concern themselves with the children right over the learning center, they have to not care about 40 plus people who may pass away.”

The council members repeatedly reassured speakers that the shelter on 21st Street would be gone after 22 weeks: There’s already other interest in the building.

Because of that, though, Stang said, the problem will most definitely need to be addressed again.

“Please, and I implore the public, if you have a thought or an idea or an opportunity, I have been saying this for a couple of months, please let us know. Because we know we’ll be right back here next year.”