11/26/2013 - Wichita Police Department: Making a Difference for People Experiencing Homelessness

By Officer Nathan Schwiethale, Wichita Police Department, Homeless Outreach Team

In February 2013, the Wichita Police Department implemented a Homeless Outreach Team (HOT) pilot program, with the approval of Chief Norman Williams. According to the annual point in time count for Wichita, Kansas, the chronic homeless population nearly doubled from 2009 to 2011. Like many other cities nationwide, Wichita frequently receives 911calls regarding people who are experiencing homelessness and panhandling or drinking alcohol in public. As the homeless numbers increased, so did calls for service. Part of the mission of the Wichita Police Department is “improving the quality of life in our community.” And homelessness is a quality of life issue. Therefore, we began attending meetings with local homelessness service providers to develop rapport, build trust, and more importantly learn about the homelessness issues in Wichita. 

Through these meetings we realized  that by working in partnership with these providers, the Wichita Police Department (WPD) could get many people off of the streets and connected to valuable service programs.  There are providers who specialize in outreach for specific populations, but few were all encompassing. In law enforcement, we found that we could be that missing link to help the homeless connect with case managers and/or submit referrals for the Wichita Sedgwick County Housing First Program. We also envisioned offering other services, which could help people experiencing homelessness be successful. These services include, but are not limited to, transportation to shelters or substance treatment centers, case management, assistance with employment, and diverting minor criminal charges away from the courts in lieu of homeless services.

WPD conducted research throughout the nation to find best practices in addressing the issue of homelessness. We found that the Colorado Springs Police Department’s model had won the 2010 Herman Goldstein award for community policing. This department implemented a Homeless Outreach Team in its community, dramatically reducing the homeless population. WPD members attended a training workshop with Colorado Springs officers, brought back what they learned, and in February 2013, the Wichita Police Department’s Homeless Outreach Team pilot program was initiated. WPD’s HOT program has three full-time members - Officers Nathan Schwiethale, Greg Feuerborn and Danny Taylor.

HOT Officers found it imperative to utilize all available resources in the community to address homelessness including accessing the Wichita Sedgwick County Housing First Program. Housing First is the initial program that homeless people are referred to, as it is a low barrier approach to housing and the organization works with prospects despite their legal background. When a person is approved for the Housing First program, HOT helps the citizen experiencing homelessness search for a home and then helps them obtain donated furniture and household items from a local furniture donation center.  All Housing First participants are required to meet weekly with an assigned case manager in the home and HOT helps search for case managers who best suits needs, whether for mental health, substance abuse, or peer mentoring. As a result of weekly visits by police officers, landlord participation for the Housing First program has greatly increased. 

In addition, WPD began the “Finding A Way Home” program, which reunites people experiencing homelessness with family members who are willing to 

give them housing and offer assistance.  To date, HOT has reunited nineteen homeless individuals utilizing this  program.  

HOT also assists people who are experiencing homelessness obtain employment.  Once a person experiencing homelessness becomes housed through the Housing First program, HOT works with him or her to find employment and eventually become self-sufficient.  This assistance includes job-readiness programs offered through the City of Wichita, the State of Kansas, and other employment programs. So far, the pilot program has helped 22 people gain employment. One individual the HOT team helped had incredible skills in construction. He is now the proud owner/operator of a very successful construction company. After being homeless for 20 years, his dream is now fulfilled. 

Working with the Housing First program and other homeless providers has allowed the HOT team to witness tremendous accomplishments. Since February 2013, the Homeless Outreach Team has:

  • helped more than 100 people move from homelessness into permanent or transitional housing
  • reunited 33 people experiencing homelessness with family members or friends willing to take them in
  • helped more than 100 people experiencing homelessness obtain shelter
  • made contact with people experiencing homelessness more than 2,000 times. 

The success of the WPD HOT program has been featured in numerous articles and news stories. HOT has also bridged the gap between police, the homeless population, and service providers. The three groups are now working together. In 2012, USICH called for increased collaboration among law enforcement and behavioral health and social service providers.”  In Wichita, we believe we have met the challenge.

On November 8, Nathaniel Schwiethale received the Officer of the Year Award from the Wichita Police Department for his exemplary work to people experiencing homelessness in Wichita, Kansas.

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