Kansas homeless shelters report increase in clients; directors seeing more families

Homeless shelters across Kansas and the country participated in the annual Point-in-Time Homeless Count this week, trying to come up with an accurate picture of homelessness.

Some shelter representatives in Kansas — which conducted the count Wednesday — say one thing will be clear from the federal survey: They’re packed and the numbers keep growing.

“This is probably as bad as it’s been,” said Emily Wagner, director of the Manhattan Emergency Shelter, which can house up to 47 people.

Wagner said her shelter is now almost always full, and this year was the first time people were turned away on some nights.

Locally, overcrowding at the Lawrence Community Shelter has been a constant issue, with the shelter using overflow space on most nights to accommodate the 100 or so seeking shelter, said Loring Henderson, shelter director. A move to a larger facility in September will allow the shelter to house up to 125 people, but for the time being, he said, “It’s pretty packed.”

The annual counts, mandated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD, have given a clearer picture of homelessness in Kansas during the past few years.

In 2007, the count identified 2,111 homeless people in the state. That number dipped to 1,811 in 2009, but jumped by more than 40 percent to 2,570 in 2011. Douglas County has seen homeless numbers double between 2009 and 2011, from 112 to 226. The state’s four largest counties — Johnson, Sedgwick, Shawnee and Wyandotte — also saw large increases during the past few years, according to Point-in-Time statistics.

The results of this year’s count may be deceiving, however, as it will focus only on people in shelters and will not include people who are camping, sleeping in cars, or doubled up with friends and family. In 2013, a more comprehensive survey will be done.

In addition to a general increase in the homeless population, shelters also report that in the past year, there’s been a shift in who’s showing up at their doors. Instead of more single men, Wagner said her shelter is seeing more single woman and families, something also seen at the Lawrence Community Shelter, which has been forced to increase the number of family areas during the past year. At the Topeka rescue Mission, director Barry Feaker said they’re seeing a similar dynamic, serving about 90 children in 2011.

But even larger increases were probably prevented by federal dollars from the Homeless Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program, or HPRP, said Shannon Oury, executive director at the Lawrence-Douglas County Housing Authority.

The funding was designed to prevent high-risk families from becoming homeless or quickly re-housing families who had become homeless. Since 2009, the Lawrence-Douglas County Housing Authority has received more than $700,000 in funds for the program. Locally, the dollars made a significant impact, preventing 248 local families from becoming homeless and re-housing 48 other families, Oury said.

But the funding is running out across the country and the state. Oury said locally the HPRP funds expire in February.

“There’s no more ‘get you over this hurdle'” funding, she said, and that’s causing big a concern in the housing assistance world.

“There’s not another pot of money,” Oury said. “The money is getting scarcer and scarcer.”