One-on-One: Barry Feaker reflects on 36 years leading Topeka Rescue Mission

Updated: Feb. 18, 2022 at 10:00 AM CST
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TOPEKA, Kan. (WIBW) - The Topeka Rescue Mission of today is very different from the one Barry Feaker walked into in 1986.

“I remember coming in the front door for the very first time and, literally, the floor was leaning a certain way,” Feaker recalls with a laugh.

As buildings and programs have changed, the constants for 36 years have been Feaker, and the people.

Long-time Topeka Rescue Mission Director Barry Feaker stepping down

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“At the end of the day, people are people - and if they’re hungry, they’re hungry; if they’re homeless, they’re homeless; if they hurt they hurt - and can we love them with love?” Feaker said.

Feaker announced Friday he will step down from his leadership position this spring. For more than three decades, he has led the organization through changes, adapting to the changing face of homelessness and changing policies.

Almost immediately, the shelter itself became his primary concern. At that time, the mission’s home was a small building in what’s now a parking lot across the street from the current shelter on North Kansas Ave. About 15 to 20 people a night stayed there.

Feaker said the community talked about expanding the shelter. Those talks accelerated in 1989, when a large rock fell through the ceiling in the men’s dorm. As a result, fundraisers ensued, and the current shelter building in 1991.

Feaker says, at the same time, society was shifting - particularly in Topeka.

“If you think back, in 1986, we had a Topeka State Hospital and we had a Menninger Foundation here. Neither one of those are here anymore. That didn’t mean the issues went away in regards to mental health,” Feaker said.

Add to that evolving substance abuse issues, a rise in single-parent families, and policies moving people off public assistance programs, and the demographics of homeless were shifting.

“A number of people left the welfare programs that are government funded. Some of them were able to gain employment and do very well, and but others fell off, and they became homeless - and so we saw a significant increase in women and children,” he said.

Feaker led the charge to meet their needs, giving rise to the mission’s Hope Center for women and families, which opened in 2000.

“It filled up immediately,” Feaker said.

The shelter program that once housed a couple dozen people a night was giving more than 300 a place to sleep in the pre-pandemic years. It’s averaging between 100 and 150 now. But all along, Feaker was working to make the community understand that shelter alone wasn’t the answer.

“Housing alone doesn’t solve people’s problems. It’s only one piece of the equation. You can have people in housing and no food; you can have people in housing, and no utilities,” Feaker said. “It’s so complicated, and what happens is that many communities, many institutions, will say it’s so complicated, we want to do the simple thing. Let’s just give them a house. Well, that’s not worked for decades.”

Under Feaker’s leadership, TRM has partnered with community agencies to enact programs for education and job training and rehousing. They focused on empowering the HiCrest neighborhood with the NETReach program. Their Street Reach team serves people in camps. They launched a human trafficking intervention initiative. The pandemic’s Operation Food Secure facilitated food box distribution. Most recently, the Mobile Access Partnership with Valeo, Topeka Police and Stormont Vail brings shower, laundry and health care to those in need.

“I’m just one role,” Feaker said. “It definitely is a symphony of people coming together; I’m most blessed to see this community just say yes, let’s do this together.”

His approach was so successful, however, it ended up creating a bit of an issue. Feaker says they started noticing people from different parts of the country, with no connections to Topeka, coming to the Capital City to utilize TRM’s shelter and programs. Feaker said they had to create a policy that people with no connection to the greater Topkea area - which was defined as family, employment, mental health, medical health, education or legal reasons - could only stay 14 days.

Feaker said the policy means only two-to-three percent of the mission’s current clients have no local connections, whereas the figure was around 20 percent at one point. He said the policy was needed so that people in the community would have priority for shelter and services.

Feaker says he’ll remain involved advising on homelessness issues both locally, and nationally for those who view Topeka as a model. But, he says, it’s time to hand over the reins. LaManda Broyles, who joined TRM in June 2021 as senior director of ministry operations, will succeed Feaker as executive director.

“I felt like I did the best that I could during this time,” Feaker said. “I don’t want to stay too long, didn’t want to leave too early, and so I think it’s great timing for the next generation to be able to come in to build upon the platforms, the foundations that we’ve set here.”

The foundation he’s laid, he hopes, is convincing more people to look beyond what they see when they encounter someone who is homeless.

“Once we are brave enough to ask the question why - why is this person homeless? - and then the next question is what?” Feaker said. “This is not romantic. This is not everybody lives happily ever after. This is hard. This is broken. I would like for people to say we really want to know why, and then ask what can we do together.”

TRM plans a community celebration in April to thank Feaker for his work, and welcome Broyles.

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