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How a Wichita woman lifted her family out of homelessness during an affordable housing shortage

On a frigid day in January, Amy Frey searches a massive warehouse near 37th North and Hydraulic for furniture options to complete her new apartment.

‘Can I pick out a bed?’ she asks a volunteer with His Helping Hands, the nonprofit she works with, to pick up free household items.

One of Frey’s two daughters has been sleeping on an air mattress for over a month, ever since the trio moved out of homelessness and into a new apartment.

The answer is yes – and she also gets a box spring.

“Box spring and a mattress – woo hoo!” Frey laughs.

The new bed is a welcome relief for her daughter, although Frey says she will still have to sleep on an air mattress herself.

In Wichita and across the country, the number of people experiencing homelessness reached a record high in 2023. Local and national service providers have pointed to a combination of factors causing this, including a shortage of affordable housing, inflation and the expiration of COVID relief.

However, Frey was able to defy this trend. With the help of a mix of government and nonprofit resources — along with sheer will and a lot of luck — she was able to get her own housing in December.

The process wasn’t short: Frey says she and her daughters spent four months in a shelter or hotel room. And the process wasn’t easy: She said her previous eviction had scared off some landlords, and that many of the apartments accepting government housing subsidies were in areas where she didn’t feel safe.

The process also isn’t feasible for everyone: Both nonprofits they’ve relied on say they’re turning away far more people than they can help with their resources.

But Frey, a single mother, managed to achieve this.

“I just want to let everyone know that it is possible to get back on your feet, through community resources and through housing and things like that,” Frey said. “Just carry on. … Small steps lead to big steps. It is better to take small steps than no steps.”

Room in the shelter

Frey’s two daughters are like most children. The oldest, 17-year-old Taylor, enjoys playing Call of Duty and basketball and J. Cole’s music. The youngest, seven-year-old AJ, watches a lot of cartoons and, wherever she lives, fills the room with cuddly toys.

They also, like most children, want their own space. So when Frey returned to Wichita in the fall of 2022 after living out of state for some time, she knew she needed a more permanent solution than living in a relative’s home with her daughters.

However, rent was the biggest obstacle. The apartments she wanted required tenants to have an income three times the rent. For a single mother who was cleaning houses at the time, Frey said the calculations were off.

“For the amount of money I could afford, it’s not in the major parts of Wichita,” Frey said.

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Frey was one of many households that have struggled to find affordable, quality housing in recent years. In 2022, nearly half of Wichita’s renters were housing-stressed, spending more than 30% of their income on rent and utilities, according to a recent report from the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies.

In June 2023, Frey said her living situation became untenable and she had to leave her family’s home. One to two weeks before she left, she said she called the Catholic Charities’ St. Anthony Family Shelter every day. The shelter operates without a waiting list, on a first-come, first-served basis, so that was the best way to get a spot.

The strategy worked. A room opened in early July. She and her daughters came to live there.

Frey is in the minority. The shelter has only 13 rooms, which puts a hard limit on the number of families it can serve, said Ann Nash, St. Anthony’s program director. Between October 2023 and January 2024, the shelter sent away an average of 67 families per month – about 161 children per month.

“We need more places to sleep, more homeless shelters for families, because we just don’t have enough of them,” Nash said.

Nash said the closure of the Salvation Army’s emergency shelter for women and families last summer only exacerbated the problem.

Section 8 and safety first

Just before moving to the shelter, Frey decided to apply for a Section 8 housing voucher, a form of government housing assistance for low-income people.

The city gave her a voucher on Aug. 1, according to documents Frey provided. That meant she could look for two-bedroom apartments for up to $790.

Her timeline — receiving a voucher in less than two months — is much faster than many applicants experience, Nash said.

“If you apply for Section 8 now, it will be two to three years before you even get a Section 8 house,” Nash said.

The average wait time in Wichita to obtain a housing voucher between 2020 and 2023 was 381 days, according to a document from the city of Wichita. That’s a national trend: A study the city of Wichita cited in an email to KMUW found that the majority of housing authorities across the country have waiting lists of more than a year due to insufficient funding.

The voucher spurred Frey’s journey forward, allowing her to look for apartments with a reliable source of income. In August and September she started calling around town.

She has an eviction to her name, which disqualified her from some options. But Frey said several complexes looked past it when she told them in advance.

Choosing an apartment was more challenging. Frey does not have a car, so all potential units had to be on a bus route.

She said she visited five to eight options. Then came the application fee, which Frey said typically costs between $25 and $65.

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“I really had to do my due diligence and homework and … research things, make sure it was somewhere I wanted to be,” Frey said. “… Because it starts to add up to, you know, $25 to $65 in application fees.”

Safety was another obstacle: Frey said she worried about her children at many of the locations that accepted her voucher. That’s why she turned down a complex on Broadway and Pawnee.

“I just didn’t think that was right for my family,” Frey said. ‘Because I have girls and children. I don’t want them to walk out the door and see someone smoking a pipe or…shooting up or something.”

Safety was also an issue at the second apartment complex she was considering, Frey said. She had signed a lease on a unit near Lincoln and Woodlawn, and Catholic Charities helped her pay a down payment. But shortly before she moved in, the unit was broken into. Frey retreated and became concerned about bringing her children to the location.

“One thing I can never get back is the safety… of my family in that house,” Frey said.

In mid-October, St. Anthony required her to find another place to stay.

The shelter is intended to be a 30-day option, but allows residents to stay longer if they are actively looking for housing. Because Frey had a housing option — the apartment that was burglarized — Nash said the shelter asked her to move.

Once again, Frey looked for a safety net to catch her when she fell. A case manager at Catholic Charities told her about a nonprofit known as Children 1st, and Frey called. It would pay for a temporary hotel while she found an apartment.

Life at Motel 6

One November afternoon at Motel 6, AJ broke into a pack of ramen for a snack while sitting on a bed covered in piles of folded laundry. Lady Gaga’s Bad Romance briefly played from her phone.

The hotel room is full of the lives of Frey and her two daughters. Flintstones gummies, a kid’s unicorn backpack, and Lysol wipes are piled on the table under the TV.

Despite the cramped space, the hotel was a step forward for her family, Frey said.

The room had a mini fridge and was within walking distance of a grocery store. Frey could cook in the room using a stovetop and even grill meat on a mini George Foreman.

“If you live in a motel and you come out of the shelter, you have more freedom here,” Frey said. ‘We can come and go. We don’t have to have a curfew. … We can get our own food. They can eat whatever they want to eat, whenever they want.”

Children began paying for homeless families to stay in hotels in 2023, as there aren’t many shelter options for parents with children.

“Families have a lot to lose,” said Kathleen Webb, executive director of the nonprofit. “They have their children to lose, right? And so, if you are not stable in a home, you can lose your children. And that’s why I like working with families. They are very motivated.”

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Webb said the hotel program, which is funded through donations and grants, often fills a gap between families’ stay in a shelter and when their lease begins. But it can hardly help everyone who needs it.

“Every week we have about four families who are in need of assistance, homeless or at risk of becoming homeless,” Webb said. “And of those four families, we can in principle help one family.”

Nash said most people who move out of the shelter don’t end up in a hotel.

“(Frey) was really blessed to find that service,” Nash said. “Because right now there is no one who has the money to pay for a hotel.”

Frey said she began to feel more confident about permanent housing when she was approved for an apartment complex to the east that met all her criteria: It accepted her previous evictions and Section 8 voucher, passed the inspection process, felt safe and was near a bus. route and schools.

Her move-in date was December 1st.

“Everything’s going up,” Frey said from the motel room. She said thank you to God.

“I ask God every day – I get up and I pray and I ask Him to guide me throughout the day,” Frey said. “…I don’t want to experience any more hardships than what I’ve already experienced.”

“Finally got the room we deserved”

Move-in day in December came just in time for the family to celebrate Christmas in their new home.

Frey made 68 chicken wings and a chocolate cake for her daughters.

AJ received a single bed from Wichita Public Schools’ McKinney Vento program, which helps children with housing instability. Frey found a free kitchen table with four chairs. She hung a calendar with kittens on it on the kitchen wall. And she’s looking for a cheap car so her family doesn’t have to walk or ride the bus.

“It was very peaceful and quiet,” Frey said. “You don’t really have to worry too much. You know, I don’t have to pay rent. I’ve never said that in my entire life.”

Frey has a new job at Dillons and enough financial flexibility to consider going back to school.

“I’m going to see if I can get my GED while I still have this time,” Frey said. “…To show my children that… GED has no age difference. You can have it whenever you want.”

Frey may still not have a bed of his own. But when she returned to the apartment from His Helping Hands with a complete mattress and frame for her eldest daughter, a small smile crept across Taylor’s face.

“We finally got the room we deserved,” Taylor said. “Things are really coming together.”

This story is being shared from KMUW through the Wichita Journalism Collaborative, a coalition of 11 newsrooms and community groups, including The Wichita Eagle. The WJC begins an 18-month special coverage effort to shed light on the pressing issue of affordable housing in Wichita.

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