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On A Deadly Cold Night, Hundreds In Kansas City Were Without Shelter

Alex Smith
KCUR 89.3

On a night when many people in Kansas City hid from the cold inside under blankets, hundreds of people without homes risked their lives outside.

Volunteers for the Greater Kansas City Point in Time 2019 homeless survey found 377 people in warming stations, outdoors or in other areas of Jackson and Wyandotte counties on Wednesday night, when temperatures dipped to zero degrees Fahrenheit. 

“Trying to even imagine staying outside in any capacity, even with some kind of wind break, even with other folks, it truly boggles the mind,” said Heather Hoffman, executive director of the Greater Kansas City Coalition to End Homelessness.

Hoffman told KCUR’s Central Standard that, as of Thursday morning, volunteers had counted more homeless people than had been counted at the same time last year, when temperatures hovered in the 50s. 

Dani, a woman who said she is homeless and has been staying in Kansas City for the last week-and-a-half, described enduring painful temperatures Thursday morning.

“It was definitely a new thing for me,” Dani, who declined to give her last name, told Central Standard. “I’ve never felt anything like the cold I felt to my fingers around 4 or 5 in the morning. I almost started crying.”

Dani, who described surviving without a home as a 24-hour job, said she’s had bad experiences in shelters and prefers to stay outside. 

Social services experts say mental illness or substance abuse can also prevent people from accessing shelter.

Hoffman said her coalition’s volunteers did not encounter any cases of frostbite, hypothermia or other cold-related health problems among the people they surveyed.

The Point in Time survey, which is mandated by U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, is conducted annually during the last week of January.

The 2018 count found a total of 1,798 homeless individuals in Jackson and Wyandotte counties.

Hoffman said social services groups had received an influx of donated blankets and other cold-weather items, which volunteers offered to the homeless people they encountered.

Reverend Dan Doty, exectuive director of the City Union Mission, said the mission's shelter in Kansas City had 80 unused men’s beds on Wednesday evening, while facilities for women and families were full.

Asked about what people experiencing homelessness need, Dani said, “Showers! And we also would like a dance party.”

Alex Smith is a health reporter for KCUR. You can reach him on Twitter @AlexSmithKCUR.

As a health care reporter, I aim to empower my audience to take steps to improve health care and make informed decisions as consumers and voters. I tell human stories augmented with research and data to explain how our health care system works and sometimes fails us. Email me at alexs@kcur.org.
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