New Kansas bill requests $40 million for homeless shelters, requires enforcement of camping laws

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The bill is supported by Sedgwick County and the city of Wichita, but a local advocacy group focused on ending homelessness is concerned about the language around enforcing ordinances about camping and vagrancy.

A bill supported by Sedgwick County and the city of Wichita is requesting $40 million from the state for homeless shelter infrastructure, and it also requires localities to enforce ordinances on camping and vagrancy.

The bill is born out of a monthslong effort in Sedgwick County and Wichita to address homelessness. Last December, the city and county signed a letter to the governor seeking $50 million in a state grant program to “address local homelessness infrastructure.”

Wichita needs at least $20 million of those dollars to help build a new one-stop shop for people experiencing homelessness, with shelter and affordable housing units.

The governor’s budget, released in January, included $40 million in grants for local governments to address and prevent housing insecurity. The county helped write a new bill to request that the money focus solely on homeless shelter infrastructure.

The bill also adds language requiring governments that receive the dollars to “enforce local ordinances regarding camping and vagrancy,” which has drawn some pushback from service providers and advocates in Wichita.

“It could lead to unnecessary criminalization of people experiencing homelessness who have no alternative but to camp,” wrote Sally Stang, as the chair of the Coalition to End Homelessness in Wichita and Sedgwick County, in testimony on the bill. The coalition includes nonprofits, local governments, businesses and faith groups. It signed onto the initial funding request to the governor’s office.

Stang also serves as the city’s director of housing and community services. A representative of the city testified separately in favor of the legislation.

In her neutral testimony, Stang wrote that Wichita has an estimated shortage of 344 emergency shelter beds year-round.

“Even with the proposed funding, we might still lack sufficient beds to meet the demand,” she added.

The language around camping and vagrancy is necessary to get the bill through the legislature, said Sedgwick County Commissioner Ryan Baty, who worked on drafting it.

“It became very clear that what (Governor Laura Kelly) had proposed was not going to get passed in that legislature,” Baty said. “… So then we began working with our legislators to say, ‘OK, what could we get passed?’

“And in order to get this bill moving, we knew that they wanted some language in there about enforcement of public encampment ordinances.”

Republican State Representative Leah Howell of Derby, who helped craft and sponsor the bill, said constituents she’s spoken with about homelessness often want two things: shelter for unhoused people, and the clearing of encampments. She says this bill offers both.

“As I have gained more and more knowledge and education about the horrific things that happen in encampments, I have become more and more convinced that we have to place a high priority on getting rid of encampments themselves,” Howell said. “And they are so severely dangerous on many, many levels to the homeless themselves. That community is so vulnerable to predators.”


Howell emphasized, though, that the bill does not include a “law enforcement” portion, such as requiring the arrest of people sleeping on public land.

“The act of being homeless itself is not a crime, and we should not be arresting people because they’re homeless and they tried to pitch a tent,” Howell said. “Now, I think it is completely reasonable to say, ‘No, sorry, you can’t pitch a tent. We’re going to take you to the shelter.’”

Howell said she’s involved various lobbyists to craft the bill, including the Cicero Institute. The Texas-based think tank introduced a bill last year that would classify unauthorized camping on state or local-government land as a misdemeanor crime. The institute, backed by Palantir co-founder Joe Lonsdale, has introduced similar bills across the country.

The organization presented neutral testimony on Howell’s bill, saying it supports money for shelters but that it still wants a broader ban on street camping.

Advocates from Wichita – and around the state – asked legislators to remove the camping and vagrancy portion of the bill. Matt Lowe works with United Way of the Plains, the lead agency of the Coalition to End Homelessness.

“We don’t think we should enact legislation or laws that are going to criminalize homelessness, resulting in people being arrested, locked up, fined,” Lowe said. “That only adds more strain to the system, by putting people in a situation where they’re costing taxpayers dollars by incarcerating them or fining them with fines that they’ll never be able to pay because of their financial situation.”

Lowe said he wants to ensure the city can maintain its current ordinance on unlawful camping, which doesn’t apply to homeless individuals if there isn’t shelter available for them.

“We only have emergency shelter beds for women during the months of, like, December to March,” Lowe said. “And so the rest of the year, if there’s a camp and there’s a woman in the camp, you don’t have anywhere that you can shelter the woman. So therefore, you kind of got to leave them alone.”

Both Lowe and Commissioner Baty said, though, that they didn’t think a policy disagreement on the bill would stifle the energy growing around addressing homelessness in Wichita.

“I think that if we were to get this thing accomplished … we’re not going to see anybody say, ‘No, we don’t want that money. We don’t need the grant. We’re not going to build shelter,’” Baty said. “I am convinced that won’t be the result of any of this.”

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