TOPEKA, Kan. (WIBW) - Advocates for the homeless say the number of people without a home in Shawnee County is seeing a steady increase. A count conducted today determines by just how much.
Along the train tracks, south of the Kansas River, Charlene Wallace, a member of the Shawnee County Homeless Task Force, and a Topeka Police officer spent the morning looking for downtrodden paths and known camp sites as part of Topeka's point-in-time homeless count.
The pair stumbled on two sites in just a few minutes, both strewn with abandoned blankets, empty bottles and shoes, a tube of toothpaste.
But nobody else in sight. Some homeless people work during the day, Wallace said, or just don't want to be counted because of concerns like a mental health issue.
"They're afraid that they may be ousted out of their homes, because these are their homes," Wallace said.
The count is critical for city and county officials to ensure funds from the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
The funds go towards services like housing and other supportive services to help those at risk of homelessness live independently.
"Today is all about not only counting how many homeless are in Topeka at a single point in time, but also figuring out what that population looks like," Lewis Kimsey, with the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitative Services, said.
Kimsey said the homeless might be disabled, vets, families, even kids with specific nutritional needs.
A short survey asks the homeless what the reasons are they are homeless, Kimsey said, "So that we as a community can figure out better ways to service those needs."
Services that could have prevented a medical emergency that same morning. A homeless man seeking shelter underneath the Topeka Boulevard bridge suffered from frostbite - despite relatively mild weather.
It could happen to anyone, Mark DeGroff, communications director with the Topeka Rescue Mission, said.
"What I think a lot of people don't understand and don't realize is that more than 40 percent of Americans are at risk of being homeless. They're one major medical expense or one paycheck away from being homeless," he said.
DeGroff and Kimsey both stressed the importance of community involvement, in addition to federal funds for services.
"I truly believe that if the population knew how severe the problem is, they'd step up and help out," Kimsey said.
The Shawnee County Homeless Task Force expects to have the results of the count next month. Last year, 337 homeless were counted.