The City of Topeka has proposed an $1 million initiative to support the unsheltered and homeless. According to a WIBW report, a task force consisting of a coach, facilitator and community partners was established to discuss the unsheltered in the city with $1 million available for recommendations made by the task force. “City of Topeka shares proposed 2024 budget”
One support solution being discussed is the creation of a low-barrier shelter. A low-barrier shelter is one with a minimum number of expectations or requirements placed on those wishing to stay. For example, a person would receive a warm place of shelter even if they were intoxicated or without I.D. Further, low-barrier means people do not have to pledge their motivation to change, participate in classes or labor.
Removing barriers for those who seek shelter might seem logical considering Topeka’s current homeless shelter, operated by Topeka Rescue Mission, is faith-based and has restrictions regarding access which helps maintain safety for all; but low-barrier shelters also provide a solution to a legal conundrum – that a city must provide enough beds or places for people to lay down in order to ban camping. Past city manager Stephen Wade addressed this in “Turning a Corner” Our Community, Our Mission podcast, May 17, 2023.
“…the Supreme Court ruled there have to be enough beds, there have to be enough places for people to lay down, in order to enforce no camping.”Stephen Wade, former Topeka city manager
Wade along with mayor of Topeka Michael Padilla and Topeka Rescue Mission (TRM) executives LaManda Broyles and Miriam Krehbiel were featured on “Turning a Corner” a podcast produced by TRM. During the podcast, the four shared their recent trip to Colorado (April 2023) where they visited a couple of low-barrier shelter programs. Spring Rescue Mission located in Colorado Springs, Colo. was one stop.
“Springs has done that [created a low-barrier shelter], they have enough beds and in a very safe and welcoming environment…[So now] it’s not okay to set up camp in Springs, it’s just not,” said Wade.
Colorado Spring police can better enforce ordinances that ban camping on public property, reported “The Gazette.” Andrew Phellps, Colorado Springs city homelessness prevention and response coordinator was quoted “the extra shelter space is key because police might be sued for violating campers’ constitutional rights if they issue tickets for camping when no alternative shelter exists.”
Topeka currently does not issue tickets to those who camp, but the city is working with a contractor to “tidy up” encampments and restore embankments for the community, stated Padilla and Wade. “TRM has been crucial in helping.”
“Role of government is to make sure we are a safe community, a healthy community,” said Barry Feaker, founder of Compassion Strategies and former executive director of TRM. “The key here is, you guys [Wade & Padilla] decided to go with TRM to visit the Spring Mission there and talk with mission and leaders and learn there are ways this can be done. We’ve turned a corner, this isn’t just a one organization problem anymore or a bunch of little organizations, this is a community issue that is not going to be looked at only as a problem to be swept under the rug…and we have to do this with a lot of compassion and strategy.”
Prior to the Colorado Springs trip, Topeka’s city government hosted an invitation-only homelessness summit, an event for city officials to listen and gain an understanding of where and how it can help deal with homelessness-related problems, reported The Topeka Capital-Journal. About 60 people attended representing over 40 agencies.
Not in attendance were NOTO business owners, who are geographically positioned in the mecca of Topeka’s homeless population.
When it was announced TRM acquired a building located on the very north tip of the district, some worried it would transition into the low-barrier shelter, sandwiching the businesses between TRM’s current shelter, Hope Center and a new low-barrier shelter. seveneightfive reached out to Broyles via email who assured us “We have no intentions of using this building for a shelter,” and further clarified
“the City of Topeka and TRM have not made plans or agreed to piloting a no – low-barrier shelter.”
Broyles also attached a media release addressing the rumors which were reported by various local media outlets.
Not finding TRM’s response palatable, approximately 40 NOTO business owners, supporters and residents united as A Coalition for Better Topeka. NOTO business owners Heather DiDomenico Graves and Pedro Concepcion funded their own trip to Colorado Springs on July 1 to visit the district located around Spring Mission’s low-barrier shelter. Their findings drastically negate the narrative by TRM and city officials.
Graves and Concepcion spoke with business owners, employees and citizens located near the shelter on that day. Businesses visited varied in offerings and proximity of shelter and included: Urban Steam American Bistro located one mile west, Paris Crepe, a french restaurant, located just around the corner about two blocks east, Gallery 113 an art gallery featuring works by Denise Duker, located one and half miles north and Goodeye Shop, a vintage apparel store also located approximately one and half miles north of the shelter.
All whom they spoke with, from business owners to employees, shared frustrations, regrets and concerns regarding the impact the low-barrier shelter has had on the business district. Many believed the narrative in the beginning and the possibility for change, some felt a bit ashamed the outcomes didn’t match the funds poured into the initiative, all believed they should have fought harder for a seat at the table five years ago when the discussions were occurring.
“Families don’t feel safe and people don’t feel safe walking to their cars.”
“The store next to me has it worse. They had to close their bathrooms because children were finding needles in the bathrooms.”
“No-barrier shelter has only brought more people to the district…and not to stay at the mission, they only come for the food and to hang around the area.”
“I saw a man smoking crack while I ate a crepe,” said Graves. In fact, the Colorado Springs’ Saturday when Graves and Concepcion visited began with a 9am incident of a homeless man kicking another man’s head and ended at 10pm when one of the district’s streets was closed due to a shooting which resulted in a car crash.
“The no-barrier shelter has helped no one. It has only drawn way more homeless to the area.”
“I used to feel bad for these people and wanted to help, and now I see it’s a bigger problem and the mission is a small band aid that isn’t working.”
“Camping has not changed, people camp all the time.”
“We still have tent cities, they have to clear out every few months.”
“There are people still camping in the parks on the street and by the river. They pay money to clean it up every few months and they come right back.”
“We have no trespassing signs, so people tear them down and camp there anyway and then say there was no sign.”
“Old Colorado City is so bad, people are camping on homeowners’ property. Everyone is outraged.”
The concerted effort to provide more shelter beds for the homeless in Colorado Springs began in 2018, by 2020 the city had more than 750 shelter beds. But hundreds of beds are consistently empty each night. “Many homeless people still prefer staying outside than heading to a shelter,” reported “The Gazette.“
“Low-barrier shelter equals more people from other cities and states, which means more grants and more federal dollars.”
“Fight hard to not allow all of the services in one area. We are overrun with unsheltered people.”
“It’s more unsafe than it was before the low-barrier shelter and people don’t want to come here.”
For Graves and Conception, the takeaway was this: more research and discussion needs to occur regarding the addition of a low-barrier shelter in our community and such shelter most certainly should not be located in close proximity to Topeka’s current homeless shelter, unless the community no longer desires to have a vibrant NOTO Arts District.