WICHITA, KAN. - Wichita Police are launching a new program they hope will eventually help people out of homelessness in the city.
The department is assigning two officers full-time to its new Homeless Outreach Team. Police and advocates for the homeless are excited about the program.
"I'm, like, totally sold on it because it basically helps to de-criminalize homelessness," said Sandy Swank, Inter-Faith Ministries Director of Housing and Homeless Services.
When police officers find homeless people sleeping or loitering in public areas, members of the department's new homeless outreach team will help them locate services and shelter.
"If they're unable to find a place to stay, if everything is filled up that night, they're going to allow them to stay where they are until they can," Swank said.
Wichita Police Capt. Max Tenbrook said the program's goal is beyond simply getting the homeless off the street. The ultimate goal, he said, is to help them out of homelessness. "We will do what we can to first of all assist them in referrals and getting them the resources they need and at some point trying to solve that problem -- whatever it might have been -- that led them to be homeless," he said.
The Homeless Outreach Team is modeled after a similar successful program in Colorado Springs, Colo. Tenbrook is confident it will work in Wichita, too. "We're going to run it for one year," he said. "We're going to track our contacts (and) our stats. We'll evaluate the program at the end of the year and then we'll see if we're going to continue it."
Tenbrook said homelessness is not a crime and the goal of officers will not be to issue fines or make arrests unless homeless people officers encounter are breaking the law.
Swank said while being homeless is not illegal, ordinances in some cities basically mean it is. "Jaywalking, dumpster diving, those kinds of things," she said. "Though they are not supposed to be targeting homeless, they kind of do."
She said it makes no sense to fine homeless people because most of them have no money to pay the fines. Swank also said changing the way those cases are handled will save taxpayers money. "It will also save us in the long run because the correctional departments will not incur the costs that they have for a lot of these frivolous charges," she said.