After Wichita Falls and Perryton, Texas, an oddly-named Kansas city — Liberal, population 19,500 — was the third stop of my trip to mid-country homelessness sites that coastal journalists ignore.
Stepping Stone’s office and bedrooms are behind a red door in a brick building that displays dark-wooded rooms thoroughly redone with Covid money. The nonprofit, now 33 years old, has room for forty residents, mostly in bedrooms with two bunk beds each.
When I visited in July, twenty people lived at the institution. Half of the residents had mental health needs, according to executive director Lori Plante, including schizophrenia arising out of trauma, childhood molestation, and family violence. She said, “I’m not a psychiatrist, but I have one on speed dial.”
Plante worried about a resident disabled with a head injury who left “in good shape” after staying at Stepping Stone for a month. On his own, though, he stopped taking meds and started having seizures. Police brought him back: “I couldn’t believe he was the same person… no bladder control, and the skin on his toes was peeling back so the tendons were exposed and his feet were festering.”
Plante listed for me people she had cared for. She said one traumatized woman had a husband in jail for trying to kill her. Plante described an alcoholic with amputated toes whose “dirty socks were filled with blood.” She said some older residents were “paranoid, hearing voices,” and some younger ones cut themselves.
In Liberal, as in much of the U.S., mental illness is a leading cause of homelessness. From 1872 to 1997, many of the mentally ill lived at Topeka State Hospital, a state-funded institution. (Its name until 1901 was the Topeka Insane Asylum.) The state hospital, like its counterparts in many states, had scandals and reports of cruelty. In Kansas as in many states the late 20th century, the idea was that community mental health facilities would do better.
That hasn’t worked out well, particularly in Kansas. The State of Mental Health in America, issued this year by Mental Health America, a respected national nonprofit, puts Kansas at or near the bottom in every category. In the overall ranking of all fifty states plus the District of Columbia, Kansas is 51st, dead last. (Wisconsin finishes first).
Kansas is also the worst concerning youth substance disorders — the report said 9% of Kansas youth have that problem, more than any other state — and severely depressed youth: Only 6.5% receive consistent care. An NPR story explaining the results said one reason is a shortage of psychiatrists, therapists, and other mental health care workers, who often leave Kansas to get higher paid jobs elsewhere.
The city’s name, Liberal, grew out of the compassion of 19th-century pioneer Seymour Rogers. He dug a well at his ranch and made it known that he welcomed thirsty travelers. Asked what he charged for the water, Rogers would reply, “That’s alright, water’s always free here.” Some surprised recipients responded, “Thanks, that’s mighty liberal.”
What’s mighty liberal now, though, seems to be letting people poison themselves. Plante doesn’t allow drinking or drug use at Stepping Stone and would like to impose stricter rules on use of illegal substances off the premises, but she said “HUD [the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development] says people who drink or drug outside can stay here.”
When I asked Plante what kind of help the federal government currently provides in Liberal, she said “You can’t get them in Washington to see what’s going on here.” She criticized the federal “Housing First” policy, and within it what she called a “worst first,” tendency, by which people unable to keep up their apartments (because of mental health or heavy drinking) have priority.
Stepping Stone also has financial problems. Its staff and board members were hoping to receive a big HUD grant, but that didn’t come through. Two months ago Ty Lewick, the new president of Stepping Stone’s board of directors, said the organization might have to close down. Would the whole community pitch in with pledge drives, raffles, and more? On September 29, in a roundtable discussion on Liberal radio station KSCB, city manager Rusty Varnado said City Hall was giving Stepping Stone $50,000. He offered a frank explanation of one reason for local government’s largesse: Liberal is “less competitive for future business development” if visiting corporate honchos see a row of tents.