Homeless express concern about Topeka camping ban proposal
TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — For 28 years, Rob Rangel worked in the heating and cooling industry, earning up to $60,000 per year. As he sat on a blue couch deposited in a small clearing on a cool day in late December, Rangel said he never imagined his life would turn out the way it has.
Rangel, 57, is one of about 400 homeless people in Topeka. A small portion of those are unsheltered. Rangel and several other people who live in tents on the north side of the Kansas River have expressed concern about a proposal to ban camping that is being considered by the city, the Topeka Capital-Journal reported.
The ordinance, first proposed in May, would prohibit camping on public property and require written consent for camping on private property. Violators would face a misdemeanor charge with a fine up to $499 and 30 days in jail.
A strip of artificial turf and a couple of rugs lead to Rangel’s living space. A small framed painting and two pans hang from a tree outside his tent. The area also contains a tent filled with miscellaneous supplies and two green chairs. A third tent belongs to his brother, but he isn’t there — he has been hospitalized again.
The Rangels grew up in Topeka.
“I look at it — I was lucky,” Rangel said. “I had very good parents. They taught me everything.”
His father was in the military, and his mother “was a saint.”
“She had a very strong belief in God,” he said. “She’d help anybody.”
After graduating from high school, Rangel attended Wichita Tech Institute and Kaw Area Technical School, where he studied refrigeration.
“God gave me a trade,” he said. “I enjoyed it.”
Rangel married and had three sons. He divorced in 1997.
“I was gainfully employed until my life took a turn,” he said.
His mother died. Then, in March 2017, so did his 27-year-old son.
“It was really hard,” Rangel said. “I never thought I’d have to lose a kid. When I lost my son, that’s when everything got rough.”
He sought help at Valeo Behavioral Health Care after becoming depressed and ended up at the Topeka Rescue Mission.
In February 2018, Rangel had to leave the mission after being told he had breached the shelter’s security. The disturbance occurred as his brother, who also was staying at the mission, began experiencing seizures and became incoherent and Rangel sought help, he said.
“It does work for some people,” Rangel said of the mission. “For some people, it doesn’t work.”
On any given night, according to Barry Feaker, executive director of the mission, nearly 300 people stay at the shelter.
“In order to take care of a community that size, you have to have some structure and you have to have some expectations of what people will do and what they won’t do, and sometimes those who don’t want to be a part of that won’t stay or can’t stay,” Feaker said.
The siblings ended up establishing an encampment not far from the shelter. Several tents and makeshift structures have sprung up around the mission, where they can access meals and other services.
It is a challenge living without heat, water or electricity.
“It’s been quite a change in life,” Rangel said. “I lost everything. I lost it all.”
Both he and his brother suffer from several chronic health issues.
Rangel said he has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and asthma, and that the cold weather can take its toll. “Some days it’s a struggle to walk to the mission for lunch,” he said.
At times, he feels unsafe. People steal. People set fires.
A fire in December near a homeless camp damaged the Kansas Avenue Bridge, closing the north end indefinitely. Test samples have been cut from the bridge, city of Topeka spokeswoman Molly Hadfield said, and a report is expected to be completed by Jan. 18.
While living unsheltered, Rangel has learned a lot about people.
“Some people are nice,” he said. “Some people, they cheat.”
As he scanned his makeshift home surrounded by bare tree limbs, Rangel said he would like to move into an apartment or house “for my own health and benefit, and my brother’s.”
“I want to get out of this deal,” he said. “It’s not what I thought I’d do with my life.”
The city’s draft ordinance states that camping in public spaces interferes with the rights of others to use the areas, and presents a public health and safety hazard that negatively affects neighborhoods and commercial areas.
The ordinance also prohibits sleeping in a parked vehicle on a public street and storing personal property on public property.
“The city of Topeka needs to have the authority to control where people can camp in the community on public property,” Hadfield said.
The proposal is being considered by the city’s public health and safety committee. A date hasn’t been set for the group’s next meeting, but it is expected to occur later this month.
Topeka city manager Brent Trout said the ordinance as it is proposed requires a lot of work before it could be implemented.
“Staff continues to research the impacts of the implementation of such an ordinance and will continue to support the committees as they do their due diligence,” he said.
Members of the unsheltered community generally oppose the proposal and have appeared at city council meetings when the ordinance has been discussed. Most expressed the desire for the city to back off and said they should have a say in the decision because it directly affects them.
Daniel Walters, whose tent sits just a few yards away from Rangel’s living space, said he wants the city to leave them alone.
“We ain’t messing with them,” he said.
Walters makes a living by performing maintenance work at NOTO businesses and painting houses.
“Luckily, I’ve been able to keep work,” he said.
Walters, whose nickname is “Hillbilly,” said he has lived outside most of his life and prefers it.
“I just like it,” he said. “That’s the way I was raised.”
However, it has its challenges.
Walters, who is in his 50s, said keeping his belongings and staying dry can be difficult, especially as he has gotten older. But he foresees continuing to live in his tent.
Walters said he wants people to realize that not everyone wants the same thing for their life and that he prefers to live off the grid, in a self-sufficient manner.
As an alternative to the camping ban, many in the unsheltered community support the idea of identifying a designated camping area that could include such services as trash pickup, showers and laundry.
Jenny Couch supports a designated site but questioned who would run it and how rules would be established.
“That’d be the iffy part,” she said.
Couch, 31, said she escaped an abusive relationship, one she described as “four years of hell.”
Although she stayed at the mission for a time, she said there were times she wanted to smoke or get some fresh air in the middle of the night, which wasn’t allowed.
“It just wasn’t for me,” she said, describing it as like living in a cattle pen.
Couch has lived “out there” for about a year.
Recently, someone slashed her tent.
“It scared the crap out of me,” she said.
While the community doesn’t always get along, “I consider us all family,” Couch said.
Hadfield said the city isn’t certain a designated camping area will be part of the solution. Officials also are looking at whether additional shelter space or a different type of shelter space is needed.
Feaker said the camping debate is “a complicated issue.”
“What I support is something that really looks at where’s it OK from a safety standpoint on public property to be able to be an outdoor camp or to live outdoors, and I think that’s the big question and it’s going to be a hard one to answer,” he said.
On private property, camping becomes a liability issue.
“If we can’t protect them there, then we’re probably not going to say it’s OK,” Feaker said. “But if we come up with something formalized on that property to where there is some structure and order ... then that might be a different story.”
Other fixes and continued dialogue are needed.
“It will require us looking at more long-term solutions for the people who are in this predicament, and that will be expensive,” Feaker said. “It’s difficult for sure, but it’s a good conversation to have and something good will come out of this.”
Topeka police Sgt. Josh Klamm, who heads the department’s outreach with the homeless community, said there are pros and cons to the proposal.
“There are individuals that do cause a lot of problems, that cause a lot of damage like we saw with the fire, whether that was intentional or accidental — I hear both on the street,” he said. “If that law was in place, then honestly, those camps wouldn’t have been there and the bridge wouldn’t have got damaged.
“But with that being said, making a law that it’s illegal to camp also is not going to stop homelessness. It’s going to either push it further out or something along those lines.”
Of a centralized camping area, Klamm said, “I think if we’re going to do something, I think that is the best idea that has been proposed.”
On a recent visit to the area, Klamm spoke with Luther Lohff, 29, who was in need of a tent after his was taken.
Lohff is an Army veteran from Iola. He came to Topeka in the summer of 2017 to escape a troubled relationship.
“The only thing I could do was get away,” he said.
After receiving mental health assistance, then being released, he went to the mission, but said he couldn’t deal with the rules. So he found a tent and a place by the river.
“I’ve always been an outdoorsy guy,” he said. “My tent’s my home.”
Lohff acknowledges that some people choose this lifestyle while others are forced into it. Those who choose it may feel freer by not having to pay bills, while others may want to live in a more secluded setting so they don’t have to be around people.
He also said problems like theft occur throughout society.
“It’s not just us campers,” Lohff pointed out.
Across the country in 2018, more than 552,000 people were homeless, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which collects Point-in-Time data submitted by communities nationwide.
There are several avenues for addressing homelessness.
Steve Berg, vice president of programs and policy for the National Alliance to End Homelessness, pointed to the rapid rehousing model. It matches people with landlords who will rent to them; helps pay for initial expenses, such as the first few months of rent; and connects them with other services to get stabilized, such as employment opportunities, health care and child care.
“It’s proven to be very effective,” Berg said.
Working on family relationships also can help.
“A lot of times, homeless people have family members who, if approached in the right way, in a way that is conscious of problems that may have existed in the past, they can work out whatever problems might exist and then the family becomes a resource to help a person,” he said. “That doesn’t work in every situation, but it works sort of surprisingly often.”
Some cities have also turned to criminalizing homelessness.
“It doesn’t really solve people’s problems — it makes the problems worse,” Berg said, noting that people go to jail, causing them to have a criminal record that makes it more difficult to get a job.
Incarceration also is expensive for taxpayers and “creates this adversarial tone about the whole issue,” he said. “It’s like the city versus the homeless people.”
Berg noted there are also constitutional issues.
“There’s been a body of legal cases saying if you just ban sleeping on the streets and there’s no other indoor option available, then that’s illegal,” Berg said.
In September, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which covers districts in nine western U.S. states, ruled that doing so violated the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.
According to Feaker, the rescue mission, which has 286 beds, is at capacity every single night.
“We have been for years,” he said, noting that has been the case for the past eight or nine years.
Berg said there also is a tendency to focus on shelter space.
“Part of having a shelter has got to be a very clear strategy and approach for getting people out of the shelter into stable housing, and I think a lot of communities that have some shelter resources, but not enough, would probably get better results by focusing more on that than on opening a bunch of new shelters,” he said. “Leaving out the housing part is a mistake that a lot of communities make.”
Berg added that once people get housing and other support, they can often do a lot for themselves.
“People would never guess seeing somebody on the street, but once they actually get what they need in terms of mental health care or stable housing, they can a lot of times, people can really make something more out of their lives,” he said.
In a small clearing barely visible from the gravel road, Dewayne Stewart, who goes by “Tennessee” because he is from Nashville, said he wound up in Topeka four years ago after his car broke down on the interstate.
“It’s kind of become my home,” he said.
He said his family members have died and that in difficult situations, “you have to keep on keeping on.”
James, who declined to give his last name but is known as “Jesse James,” said he would rather live out of doors than with a cheating wife. He has lived at his current setup, which includes a patio, for the past few months.
James said he has often been in and out of jail and claimed he has experienced harassment by a particular police officer.
The musician said he lost everything when he and his wife split, but that he was “happy camping.”
Since GraceMed came to Topeka in July 2016, it has served 188 homeless people through a federal grant, said Alice Weingartner, director of community development. Those who qualify receive medical care at no cost.
“One thing we strive for is once we get them into our clinic, then we encourage them to build that relationship with their provider and build that trust so that then they’re maintaining their health better,” said Ashley Arganbright, health exchange navigator.
The program aims to prevent expensive trips to the emergency room.
While members of the homeless population come in with commonly seen conditions, such as diabetes, high blood pressure and COPD, they also have a unique set of challenges. Transportation is a major one, Arganbright said, as is communication.
“A lot of homeless individuals don’t have phones,” she said. “It’s hard to call and remind them about those appointments.”
Last summer, the Topeka Police Department began ramping up its efforts to reach the unsheltered population.
Klamm, who is on the department’s behavioral health team, said repeated positive contact is key.
“The reality is a lot of these individuals have had run-ins with law enforcement and most of them have been arrested for something, and so when police come to their camp, it causes some anxiety no matter what, so building that trust is probably the biggest hurdle that I come across,” he said. “Then after that it’s just being able to understand where they’re coming from while also trying to get points across occasionally — like, for example, how messy someone’s camp is, trying to get them to pick up trash, things like that. So finding that middle ground sometimes is a challenge.”
He estimated the city’s homeless community includes 60 to 70 unsheltered people, with that number rising when the weather is nicer. He said there are pockets of people living unsheltered in other parts of the city, as well.
Last month, the police department initiated a project to get ID cards for people who are homeless. About 80 people have signed up so far. Klamm said it is the first step toward getting a job and, hopefully, getting off the streets.
He visits the area near the Topeka Rescue Mission at least every other week.
“We just go out there and make contact, see how people are doing, what they need,” he said.
In addition to distributing supplies, Klamm said, he works an angle to help people get mental health and addiction help. In doing so, he has learned the histories of several people.
“It’s been interesting learning their stories and learning the different reasons people became either homeless or unsheltered,” he said. “It’s real easy for people to see our unsheltered and be like, ‘You’re lazy, go get a job,’ but there’s actually a lot of struggles that they face daily that prevent them from doing that.”
On a recent Friday, the city installed “no trespassing” signs on concrete columns below the Kansas Avenue Bridge.
“The city manager asked the city attorney to research the proper legal way to create an area that would allow the city to clear people from underneath the bridge,” Hadfield said. “The city then followed the steps necessary to create a no trespassing area.”
Earlier, the police department’s outreach team had informed people living under the bridge that they needed to move to a different location.
“Eventually, if the campers do not move on their own, the city will need to remove them and their belongings from under the bridge,” Hadfield said.
At Rangel’s living space, several people milled about on a recent Friday afternoon as Rangel collected his items.
His brother, who was released from the hospital but needs dialysis indefinitely, qualifies for a housing program. As his caregiver, Rangel also could get housing.
The plan was for the brothers to stay in a hotel until permanent housing was secured through a local organization.
Rangel said he felt nervous about the change as he had, in a way, become used to his lifestyle and home.
“I knew that I wouldn’t be here forever,” he said. “Right here, there’s just not a lot to be happy about.”
“Let’s go,” he said moments later as he slipped into the car. “Let’s go while the getting’s good. I’m ready.”
But a few hours later, Rangel was on his way back to the encampment. The plan fell through when his brother decided he wanted a different family member to be his caregiver.
“I mean, yeah, I’m hurt, my feelings are hurt,” Rangel said. “It doesn’t change the way I feel about my brother. I want my brother to get the best that he can.”
Rangel said he isn’t ashamed of his situation. He is unsheltered, but also undaunted.
“I’m not a rollover-and-die kind of guy,” he said. “I believe God has something great in store for me. I’m a survivor.”
Information from: The Topeka (Kan.) Capital-Journal, http://www.cjonline.com