Homelessness issue must be a higher priority for Kansas State Legislature

We can’t solve our country’s homelessness problem, but we can certainly do much better in our own state. That must be our focus.

A new study by researchers at The University of Chicago shows that the mortality rate for homeless people is on the rise and that the mortality rate for a 40-year-old homeless person is similar to a 60-year-old  with permanent housing or a 50-year-old living in poverty with housing.

On any given night, there are about 1,800 people living homeless in Kansas City, according to a KC advocacy group. Meanwhile, there are about 710 homeless people every night in Wichita and about 400 homeless people every night in Topeka. In Lawrence, there are about 400 homeless people living there, too.

Kansas state lawmakers have acknowledged the need to address the state’s homelessness issue, but the only legislation on the topic in the 2023 legislative session was a measure that would make it illegal to use state or local government property for unauthorized sleeping, camping or long-term shelters.

The end goal of dealing with the homelessness issue should be to help more people become self-sufficient and productive citizens so they can make positive contributions to their communities.

People unable to adequately care for themselves should be assisted in achieving the highest quality of life possible in high-quality state mental health and psychiatric facilities. 

Amy Campbell, lobbyist and coordinator for the Kansas Mental Health Coalition, agrees that there needs to be a comprehensive study on how to address the state’s homeless problem. The State Legislature’s committee studying the homelessness problem is expected to meet in November, it has been reported.

A social services organization in Wichita called Breakthrough is calling for more temporary and long-term shelter plans in the big cities. Housing First is a program that prioritizes providing permanent housing for those in need. More short-term shelter beds also are advocated by Breakthrough.

At Lawrence, and in Douglas County, officials have found that the number of homeless there increases with the increasing number of homeless camping areas offered. The number of homeless people there increased 30 percent in a couple years, it was reported, after the city/county allowed more homeless camps.

The fact is that the number of people cared for in mental and psychiatric hospitals in this country today represents only about three percent of the number of people cared for in mental and psychiatric hospitals in 1955 - and the country’s population is much higher now than it was in 1955.

Today, people with serious mental illnesses are found in many locations providing 24-hour care, including nursing homes, jails, prisons, private long-term care psychiatric facilities, community residences, crisis beds and respite beds.

There are many reasons why people become homeless. Illegal drug addiction. Lack of low-income housing. Inflated rent. Lack of supportive services and lack of social services.

Here in Kansas, it is time for state government to intercede to meet the homeless people where they are on life’s journey and to get them the help they need. Increasing short-term and long-term shelters is not necessarily the answer, as Lawrence/Douglas County has learned.

For 40 years or more, it seems, the State Legislature has tried every which way to make the homelessness issue and the mental health issue go away in the state by contracting with other organizations to handle it.

Nothing has worked, so far. It’s time for the Legislature to stop kicking this social and mental health issue down the road. The associated costs may be high, but the state can’t let the fear of high costs stand in the way of doing what is right.

In the end, we’ll be judged by how we care for the most needy people among us. Step up, Kansas.        

The Holton Recorder

109 W. Fourth St.
Holton, KS 66436
Phone: 785-364-3141

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