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Survey gives a snapshot of homeless, poverty in Hays

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They are here, even if you do not see them.

It could be a former neighbor whose home was condemned because he couldn’t keep up the maintenance. He doesn’t want to wear out his welcome with friends, so he mostly sleeps in abandoned buildings or ditches.

It might be a woman who works at your child’s school, asking for assistance for another two weeks at a motel because she hasn’t quite saved enough for a deposit and first month’s rent.

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An occasion series examining

issues of homelessness and poverty in Hays and Ellis County.

Or it could be an industrious co-worker for whom going “home” at the end of the day means finding a discreet place to park his car for the night.

These are some of the stories of the poor and homeless in Hays.

And some who work with assistance agencies are saying it is time for Hays to acknowledge them and do more to help them.

‘A drop in the bucket’

It is hard to say just how many homeless people there are in Ellis County, but an annual survey conducted by First Call for Help, a Hays agency that provides emergency assistance and referrals for those in need, gives at least a snapshot of homelessness here.

The Point in Time is a census of sheltered and unsheltered people on one night in January, conducted this year on Jan. 24 and 25.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development requires the survey in communities that receive funds through the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Grants. That funding can be used for permanent and supportive housing, transitional housing and services.

“HUD’s goal is to end homelessness by 2020,” said Linda Mills, executive director of First Call for Help, 205 E. Seventh, Ste. 204. “To do that, they have to know where and how many there are, and how is homelessness in rural counties different from homelessness in cities, because we do know it is very different.

“The Point in Time count is an effort to do that,” she said.

In Hays, the PIT was conducted this year through surveys offered at several agencies — the Salvation Army, Options, First Care Clinic, Ellis County Health Department, Hays Public Library and Western Kansas Association of the Concerns of the Disabled. It was first conducted here in 2014.

The surveys were voluntary, and questions were asked to help prevent an individual from being counted more than once.

Of the 163 people who took the survey this year, 25 were identified as homeless, with another seven at risk of becoming homeless.

Mills and others doubt that number is accurate, however, because of how the survey is administered.

“We’re selecting our places where we’re administering the survey because we know low-income populations utilize those services,” Mills said. “We know we can’t cover the whole city of Hays for one thing, so we want to target where we’re going.”

That was one problem Laurie Mortinger, co-director of the Community Assistance Center, 208 E. 12th, had with the survey.

Mortinger said she thinks the number from the PIT survey is too high.

“All they did was have us ask a few people that came in here one day, two days,” she said. “That doesn’t really catch the people I think that may be homeless.”

Those seeking food boxes from the CAC must show proof of Ellis County residence.

“They have to show us an electric bill, water bill or a lease. So if they don’t have that, obviously they’re homeless, so we don’t hear much of that,” she said.

Her co-director, Theresa Hill, agreed, and added the center sees maybe five transients a year seeking help.

Mills and Sherry Dryden, executive director of United Way of Ellis County, 205 E. Seventh, Ste., 111, disagree but acknowledge the survey’s method will not offer an accurate count.

“You know with any issue that society faces, whether it’s rape or sexual assault, whether it’s drug use or alcohol abuse, that the number that actually gets reported is usually just a drop in the bucket of what it is,” Mills said.

“We have a lot more,” Dryden said. “There’s people that you know are homeless and you think you can contact them and reach them, but it appears they are spending their time just surviving.

“To do this in a 24-hour period, we’re missing a lot,” she said.

But to say how many homeless people there are in Hays is difficult. Dryden said it could be up to three times what the PIT survey showed.

“I don’t know, but I feel strongly that 25 is not even touching it. And yet 25 is too many,” she said.

A safe space

Anecdotally, the need for assistance in Hays is growing.

Although the number of clients the Community Assistance Center has served in the last few years has remained steady, its board decided recently to increase the number of times people can receive food in a year’s time from four to six.

“We saw that people were coming in more often and asking, and then they couldn’t get them because they had already used their four in a year’s time,” Mortinger said.

Three different size boxes are available depending on the number of people in the household. Each box contains approximately a week’s worth of food, Mortinger said.

The center gave out 1,127 food orders in 2016, and assisted a total of 5,405 people.

A few blocks away, Brandon Nimz has seen growth at his ministry, Unite Common Grounds Coffee House, 208 E. Eighth. The 3,700-square foot space in the Hadley Center is also the home of businesses Nimz runs — the Gamer’s Guild and Aikido of Northwest Kansas. Both of those make just enough money to allow the ministry to operate with little expense, he said. The site also is a location for distribution of government commodities.

But the growth he is seeing, along with increases in rent, have him searching for a new space.

The ministry’s free store, in particular, has seen an increase in use. The store offers almost anything people donate — cookware, utensils, linen, clothing and food. Nimz requires no proof of residence or an income level to use the store. The coffee shop, which operates when a volunteer barista is available and has suggested donations for drinks, is tucked into a corner.

“Three years ago when we started the Gamers Guild, we had a little table, the free store table. Then we had the two free store shelves. Then we had the four, then we had the six, then we had to add more space,” he said.

On a recent afternoon, stacks of out-of-date Pepsi, Crystal Pepsi and Aquafina, donated by a local bottler, sat nearby. A fairly new Wi-Fi printer sat on a shelf near the men’s dressing room — a small area shielded by a door fashioned out of cardboard that shares space with the refrigerator and freezer required for the government commodities.

On the opposite wall, a long, tall shelf holds neatly folded clothing for children and adults.

“Sometimes people donate really nice stuff,” Nimz said. “Sometimes it’s really nasty, and we have to either re-donate it to someone who has a cleaning center for the clothes, or we have to throw it away if it’s extremely soiled.”

Some of the people who come in to the ministry are referred from agencies such as First Call or the Community Assistance Center because they don’t have the proper documentation to get help there, Nimz said.

Some people come as an escape, he said, which is what he intended when he opened the Gamers Guild. It is a space to play games such as Magic the Gathering, Yugioh, Warhammer, Dungeons and Dragons or traditional board or card games.

“We wanted it to be a safe space to hang out,” he said.

The guild, which has its origins in a game night Nimz started while in college, is open from 6 to 11 p.m. Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays, and 5 p.m. to 2 a.m. Fridays. There are about 10 hours per week when Nimz is available for sales of games, and tournaments attract players from as far away as Colorado and Nebraska.

The earlier evening hours tend to attract a younger crowd, especially after Hays Public Library closes.

“Late at night tends to be more of the crowd who got off work, but they may not have anything else to do. A lot of them live quite a few of them crammed into a trailer in what would technically be illegal situations if someone reported it,” he said.

“They don’t want to be at home in a tight, oppressive place with a bunch of other people, so they come down here and play games instead.”

Sometimes, volunteers with the ministry will stay even later if patrons need it.

“We close a lot later a lot of the time,” Nimz said. “It just depends on who’s here and what’s going on.”

On a recent cold, rainy night, a volunteer stayed until 2 a.m. so a homeless man could stay out of the elements.

Ideally, Nimz said, he would like to find a new location that would allow the three entities to operate under one roof and expand the free store.

“Now we’re at the point where people want to donate and need to receive bigger furniture items,” he said.

“I don’t have anywhere to do it,” he said, looking around the space crammed with shelves and tables.

He made an offer on a nearby property recently, but was turned down. He hopes to either find another location soon, or work out an affordable deal with the owner of the Hadley Center to stay another year while searching for the right property. He’s grateful the management has worked with him so far, and doesn’t consider the rent increase to be unreasonable from a business perspective.

But it does put a squeeze on his ability to pay the bills.

“My ideal place would be a place that can accommodate all. This is ideal. This is what I see. God may have a different plan, and that may be better,” he said. “But to me, the ministry exists rent-free because the other two entities can foot the bill.”

‘It’s never too late to start’

The homeless might find a place to hang out at the Gamers Guild, but they will not find a shelter in Hays. Many are given a voucher for a bus ticket to Salina, or even transported there, where shelters provide meals, a place to sleep, laundry services, medical attention and help finding a job.

The Salina Rescue Mission is a faith-based shelter for men, while Ashby House assists families and single women.

Mills and Dryden say it is time Hays has one, too. But they realize getting that process started first will mean educating people.

“People say, ‘Do we really need one?’ ” Mills said. “Yeah, we kind of do. We do have homeless people here. It may not be 40 or 50 homeless people, but we do have homeless people here.”

“We are past the point we should have been doing something, but it’s never too late to start,” Dryden said.

“I know there is concern that if you build a homeless shelter, we’ll get more homeless people,” she said. “I understand and respect that concern.”

Mills also concedes there is that belief.

“That’s probably true, but is that a reason not to have a shelter?” she said.

Both also acknowledge there is an attitude in Hays that the community does not have homeless people, despite what the PIT survey shows.

“I think it would surprise people,” Mills said. “I also think that some people won’t accept it, or maybe not believe it because they don’t really see it anywhere like you would in a big city.

“There’s a fear that if we had a homeless shelter, or if we acknowledge we have homeless people here, it won’t be as nice of a community because we have those problems,” she said.

“I love living in Hays, and I think it’s a wonderful city, but we do close our eyes to some of the issues here. It’s hard to acknowledge that people are closing their eyes to the problem, because they’re generous, but it’s only up to a point.”

Mills said she is grateful the generosity of Hays residents has allowed First Call and other organizations to provide the assistance they have.

She’s hopeful that generosity would be there to make a shelter a reality if the need is understood.

“It could be just because we’ve never asked, we’ve never just said, ‘There needs to be a homeless shelter, who’s going to help us raise the funds to do it?’ ”

Juno Ogle has worked at The Hays Daily News since 1999 as a reporter, copy editor and graphic designer. She covers area businesses and events, and higher education, among other topics.