VIDEO CONTEXT: On July 25, 2023, city workers cleared a homeless camp in south Topeka. The effort took place along South Kansas Avenue. BNSF worked with the city to help clean up the 3900 block of South Kansas Avenue.
TOPEKA (KSNT) – The City of Topeka has been grappling with an increase in homelessness in recent years, but what’s being done to solve the issue?
In February, the city conducted its Point in Time Homeless count and found the city’s homeless population was at its highest since 2020. KSNT 27 News looked at the measures the city is taking to curb the homeless issues.
Hiring A Consultant
Before being fired, former city manager Steven Wade took measures to try to curb the city’s growing homeless problem. He asked the Topeka City Council to hire Sylver Consulting to conduct a study for solutions to homelessness in Topeka. The company was hired in February for $76,000 to complete an eight-month-long program to find and implement solutions. The program was supposed to run from February to September 2023.
City officials took a trip to Colorado Springs as part of the project to learn about how the city has combated homelessness. KSNT 27 News requested permission to attend the trip but was denied by the City of Topeka.
We checked back with the city on progress recently. The city said the project’s next phase was called the ‘discovery phase’ to focus on researching and ‘really understanding homelessness in Topeka.’
The first step in the discovery phase will see city officials and partners conduct a survey of homeless individuals asking for background information, how they feel about safety, about employment, desire to change their current living situations, if they feel connected to the community and about their quality of life.
Vacant Home Taskforce
The city organized a vacant home task force in September 2022, called “Change Our Culture (CoC) of Property Maintenance”. It was created in response to three separate house fires and a church fire that were attributed to squatters.
The task force aims to “improve property condition,” “reduce substandard housing,” “motivate property owners to care for their properties” and “encourage investment in vacant and deteriorated properties,” according to the CoC website.
The task force spent significant time getting its low-proceed mowing initiative off the ground. The initiative aims to help people who live in Neighborhood Improvement Association areas find neighbors or others willing to help them with lawn maintenance.
We checked back with the task force to find out what other accomplishments they’ve had over the last year. District 2 Councilwoman Christina Valdivia-Alcalá highlighted two ordinances “that I believe will help stem the tide of slumlords we have in Topeka,” she said.
The first ordinance is to strengthen LLC ordinance and the other is a retaliatory eviction ordinance. Valdivia-Alcalá said the municipal court is already engaged in the CoC rollout.
“The goal with both of these is to hold bad LLCs of multifamily dwellings accountable through mandated court dates and if needed court fines against negligent LLCs,” Valdivia-Alcalá said. “The strengthening of the retaliatory eviction ordinance and the upcoming education to residence on this ordinance will help tenants obtain clean and safe rental housing we all deserve. Without the fear, that when they speak up, they may be evicted.”
Cracking Down On Camping
The City of Topeka and Shawnee County leaders have determined it’s time to crack down on camping.
A homeless couple was kicked out of the Shunga Trail, just to move across the street to city-owned land, causing a feud for a neighborhood who didn’t appreciate having a new camp in their front yard.
On June 15, 2023, Kim Teske, a Kaw Valley Bicycle Club member was allegedly attacked by a homeless person’s dog while traveling the Shunga Trail. The incident led to an infection, multiple weeks of antibiotics, severe pain and swelling for the victim.
On Aug. 18, 2023, the Topeka Police Department (TPD) and the Shawnee County Sheriff’s Office (SNCO) announced it would be conducting a joint enforcement effort across the entire Shawnee County trail-park system after police were called to investigate safety concerns on three separate occasions.
The City of Topeka has revised its camping ordinance and it will go into effect on Nov. 17, 2023. The ordinance under Chapter 9.45 specifies certain areas where a person is prohibited from camping. The penalty for such provisions includes fines not to exceed $499 and imprisonment of up to 30 days.
Since its adoption, the city has issued 47 camping citations.
“Currently, staff from various city departments are developing an implementation plan, which will include significant public education about the new ordinance and how it will be enforced,” said City spokeswoman Gretchen Spiker. “The city is also looking to its community partners to collaborate and provide resources to those who will be impacted come November. The city wants the public to know that presently, no changes have occurred related to enforcement. The city is focused on the development of an implementation plan, and future public education.”
In 2020, the City of Topeka banned panhandling at 23 intersections across the city. Under the ordinance, panhandling in these areas is a misdemeanor and will result in a fine of up to $499 or 30 days in jail.
Since adopting the ordinance, three individuals have been cited for approaching stopped vehicles and four individuals have been cited for being in the median of a roadway, according to the City of Topeka Legal Department.
Clearing Homeless Camps
The city has tackled cleaning up homeless camps over the years:
- On July 25, 2023, city workers cleared a homeless camp in south Topeka. The effort took place along South Kansas Avenue. BNSF worked with the city to help clean up the 3900 block of South Kansas Avenue.
- On April 6, 2022, the city finished a clean-up effort at a large “Tent City” in north Topeka citing public health and safety reasons.
- In March 2019, the city reported $750,000 in damage after a campfire set by homeless individuals warped a steel girder on the Kansas Avenue bridge.