‘They don’t ask us.’ Neighborhood leader feels blindsided by city’s site for shelter

The president of a northeast Wichita neighborhood association says she and her neighbors were not asked to weigh in before the city decided to place an temporary emergency homeless shelter in their community this winter.

“It’s like everything else they do — they don’t ask us. They don’t even inform us until they’ve made their decision about how we have to live,” said Aujanae Bennett, president of the Northeast Millair Neighborhood Association.

At a joint news conference with HumanKind Ministries and local officials, Wichita announced on Thursday that the emergency shelter operation will be run out of the city-owned building at 2220 E. 21st St. that used to house the Fundamental Learning Center.

Bennett said she and other residents are worried about the safety implications of having up to 250 otherwise unsheltered people at the 24/7 facility, which is across the street from an Open Door pantry and along the way to the Boys and Girls Clubs of South Central Kansas and the TOP Early Learning Center day care on Opportunity Drive.

Bennett said she learned about the city’s plans from an informational card placed on her door on Thursday.

“Staff have been engaging with area businesses and northeast community leaders,” city spokesperson Megan Lovely told The Eagle in an email. “Residents living in proximity to the proposed emergency shelter site are also receiving door hangers this week about the proposed plans. While we’ve had to move quickly to ensure we can shelter unhoused residents as soon as possible, we are working to try to engage and inform the surrounding community.”

In 2014, when a second Lord’s Diner facility was proposed for 21st and Grove, the Wichita Ministerial League voiced opposition on the grounds that it would increase crime and public safety concerns and conflict with the vision for business development in the area. The Ministerial League did not respond to a request for comment on Thursday.

“If we didn’t want the Lord’s Diner because of safety concerns, why would we want a facility that’s going to not only feed them but house them, and open 24 hours a day?” Bennett said. “And it’s located where we have to pass it to get to the Boys and Girls Club. Is that safe?”

Ashley Hatman, vice president of marketing and development for the Boys and Girls Clubs, said the city has reassured the organization that the facility will be secure and monitored around the clock.

“They said it’s a 24/7 homeless shelter, so they’re not kicking people out at like 6 a.m. and you’ve got to come back at 6 p.m., which would kind of disperse people throughout the day, so that was good,” Hatman said.

She said parents can feel safe leaving their children in the care of adults at the Boys and Girls Clubs facility.

“In 2019, we added those double doors as an extra safety precaution, so that way there was three sets of doors before you ever hit any kids, and that’s pretty much how it is around the whole building,” Hatman said.

“Thankfully, with all the safety precautions we already have in place, we do feel good that we are still going to have safe spaces for the kids, safe programs.”

A representative for TOP Early Learning Center, which is located next to the former Fundamental Learning Center building, did not reply to a request for comment Thursday.

Bennett said people living in the neighborhoods immediately surrounding the temporary shelter location should have been given more of a say before the site was selected.

“I’m not saying that the homeless don’t need a place, because they need a place, and I want them to have one,” Bennett said.

“But it needs to be in a place where there’s not a lot of residential homes. What are they doing? Show me another shelter in this city that’s in a residential area.”