Riley County is host to an invisible problem – the highest poverty rate out of any other county in Kansas.
“Poverty in Riley County is hidden, but especially in Manhattan because of discrepancies between the housing costs and wage rates,” Emily Wagner, executive director at the Manhattan Emergency Shelter Inc., said. “We have the highest poverty rate in the state by at least 10-13 percent.”
An American Community Survey conducted for the 2007-09 time period said the poverty rate in Manhattan was 32 percent. Recent counts indicate, however, that as much as 43 percent of the Manhattan population is living in poverty, according to Stan Ward, coordinator of federal and state programs and grants at Manhattan-Ogden Unified School District 383.
A direct result from living in poverty can be homelessness. Many of these families do what is called “doubling up.” This is when multiple families occupy a space that is typically meant for one family. Resources become too scarce to provide for everyone, so this is considered homelessness under the McKinney–Vento Homeless Assistance Act.
The Manhattan Emergency Shelter is a local organization using its efforts to aid this demographic of people.
“Everyone deserves a place to stay, their own address, place to park and a stable residence,” Wagner said. “People don’t realize how hard it can be without these things. By the time people come here, all other options have been exhausted.”
The shelter serves close to 500 clients annually that include men, women and families. Their doors have been open since 1985 and have seen continued growth in the past 30 years, having to turn away close to 100 people each year.
“Our goal is to change behaviors and the way of thinking,” Wagner said. “We want to break the cycle they are stuck in so they can move on and sustain themselves. We see people from beginning to the end. They share successes and then pass them on to other clients and friends.”
Some of homelessness’ most vulnerable victims are children. According to Ward, Manhattan schools have seen a dramatic increase in homeless students from 70 to 275 students over the last nine years.
“Up until last year, it was an absolutely, totally invisible population,” Ward said. “We were lucky if we identified 50 percent of homeless kids in the school system.”
Within all of this, progress has been made and is being seen throughout the community.
“We are identifying this population better, the stigma about homelessness is changing and families don’t feel like they have to hide from the community,” Cheryl McCormick, social worker at Woodrow Wilson Elementary School, said.
The community has embraced this cause and continues to support programs in place that help get families out of the cycle. Manhattan has also provided consistent sustainability in its support that is visible in resources like the FIT (Families in Transition) Closet, a storehouse of clothes and necessary supplies.
The community also holds an annual Everybody Counts event to provide necessities for the homeless, as well as to match them with valuable resources and relationships. These programs and others allow the community to surround people in need with love and support in the form of time and resources.
The emergency shelter also offers many opportunities to be involved in their organization and the community. Some opportunities are participating in donation drives throughout the community, making meals for clients living at the shelter and even something as simple as advocating for its services in classes and conversations.
Through the efforts of organizations like the shelter and the community at large, recognition for homelessness has dramatically increased in Manhattan and surrounding areas.
“The biggest encouragement to those already involved is that people are actually consistently stepping up and doing things,” Ward said.