$40 million Kansas homeless shelter proposal comes with catch: enforcing bans in public spaces

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TOPEKA — Kansas communities are on track to receive state money to create more shelter for people under a new proposal — but a built-in provision could mean these people are criminalized for living outside first. 

The legislation comes at a time of rising tension for Kansas communities. Around 2,600 Kansans are experiencing homelessness on any given day, one annual survey shows. An estimated 29% of those counted in the survey are not accessing shelters or transitional housing programs. Instead, these residents are sleeping in encampments, in vehicles and other places not meant for habitation.  

Rep. Leah Howell, a Derby Republican who helped craft the legislation, involved conservative think tank Cicero Institute, a Texas-based organization who pushed a bill criminalizing homeless people in the last legislative session. The legislation failed after widespread public outcry, but lawmakers have continued to push similar legislation. Howell spoke against encampments during a Tuesday senate committee hearing of the bill. 

“We all know that our homeless population and the number of encampments increasing across our state is becoming more of a problem,” Howell said. 

The legislation, encapsulated as Senate Bill 542, would create a Kansas Department of Aging and Disability Services-administered program to address homelessness on the local level. The one-year allocation of $40 million in fiscal year 2025 would provide Kansas local governments with grants to build or improve shelters and homelessness services. But the funding comes with a mandate that local ordinances on camping and vagrancy be enforced.  

With a severe shortage of state shelter beds, others say taking people off the streets will do nothing but penalize them for being homeless. Christina Guidry, with the United Community Services of Johnson County, asked for the provision’s removal. Guidry said the provision could disrupt local government operations and may not provide any real benefits. 

 “If you are ticketing individuals or arresting them because they have nowhere to go, it’s very expensive to use our law enforcement and our justice system and our local government that way, and we’re just returning the same folks back out into our public spaces without having connected them to any services or housing supports,” Guidry said. 

During Tuesday’s meeting, multiple local government officials spoke of the need for solutions.


Alan Howze, assistant county administrator for the Unified Government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kansas, said Wyandotte doesn’t have a permanent homeless shelter and has seen spiking rates of unsheltered people in the wake of a Missouri ban prohibiting people from sleeping on public land. 

With Wyandotte right across the border, homeless Missourians are thought to have crossed over to seek more hospitable conditions. In 2019, the county had 81 unhoused people, and by 2023 the number was at 125. 

“The reasons that people fall into homelessness are varied and complex, but the rapid rise in homelessness has caused a serious strain on the resources that we have been devoting to those Wyandotte County residents that are without housing,” Howze said in his testimony. 

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: info@kansasreflector.com. Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

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