Unhoused residents are still waiting for Kansas City's winter plan: 'We’re in a race for our lives'
Nearly two years since the pandemic first hit and Kansas City leaders shared action plans, unhoused residents say their needs are still unmet — and the approaching cold weather means there's a lot at stake.
The backdrop to the houseless camp at 10th and Harrison streets is Kansas City’s downtown skyline. Standing there, one sees two starkly different worlds.
One is a bustling downtown chock full of luxury apartment buildings and businesses. The other is a growing group of tents pitched on a grassy area across the street from City Union Mission and ReStart.
For folks who have been chronically homeless, encampments can provide some form of support and community. But that’s been slowly eroding with repeated sweeps to clear out the camps.
“I don’t know where I’ll go. I guess to my storage or in my car,” said Dusty, who asked to be identified only by their first name.
This uncertainty made Dusty, who has been unhoused off and on for months, physically sick. Dusty was one of the people who participated in the hotel initiative for the homeless earlier this year. When that ended they had nowhere to go. The temporary shelters Dusty did find either had asbestos or stunk of rotting vermin, but those were the only options.
The latest data from the National Alliance to End Homelessness shows that rates in Kansas and Missouri were on the rise years before the pandemic began. Since 2007, there’s been a 16% increase in total homeless population in Kansas and a 4% increase in Missouri.
The numbers are even more stark for homeless people who don’t have access to an emergency shelter or transitional housing. The estimated number of “unsheltered” people — those typically found sleeping on sidewalks, in parks, in cars or abandoned buildings — have grown exponentially.
The latest data shows a 48% increase in unsheltered folks in Missouri since 2007, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, and 71% in Kansas. In Kansas City, nearly 1,800 people are unhoused. Of those, almost 500 have no access to shelter.
The number of unsheltered people, experts say, is actually much higher than what data show.
That’s what advocates and the unhoused keep pointing out.
Dusty sent Flatland a recorded phone call of them asking a shelter for help. Finding a place to sleep was nearly impossible.
“No, sorry, there’s nothing,” said the man at the shelter.
“Are you sure? Aren’t there resources you can connect me with?” Dusty pressed.
Unable to find a place to sleep that balmy night in August, Dusty bounced around town, slept in a car, used Motel 6 as storage and expressed hopelessness, according to a Facebook messenger exchange.
Fast-forward to today and Dusty still does.
“I’m so tired,” Dusty said. “I really just want to go to sleep somewhere and I’m scared.”
James “Qadhafi” Shelby, a leader with the Kansas City Homeless Union, hears this often.
The Kansas City Homeless Union front-person is tired of the talk. Shelby wants to see people getting housed. It’s something he’s continually pressed on — at City Council meetings, in the mayor’s office and on the streets.
Even more urgent is the impending winter months. What then?
“We’re not out here trying to die,” Shelby said. “The cavalry ain’t coming. We all we got.”
Some folks in the camps found work on their own. Eight now work with the Missouri Department of Transportation. But the onus was on them to prove they could work.
Connecting unhoused folks with jobs is one step in the right direction, advocates said.
There’s proof it works. For instance, after MODOT hired Craig Fulton for $14.75 an hour, his life transformed for the better.
“I sleep at night now,” Fulton said.
As part of the camp, he was responsible for cleaning and cutting shrubbery. He now uses the same skills to work for MODOT and can now afford to buy his own blankets, tent and supplies.
“Equality and equity, it goes a long way,” Shelby said, tears rolling down his face.
He’s dissatisfied with the city’s promises, one of which was to give people in the unhoused community a seat at the table to draft viable solutions for the growing houseless population.
They don’t want just a seat. They want to have a say in decision-making.
Nearly two years since the pandemic first hit and city leaders shared action plans, their needs are still unmet, Shelby said.
“I’m still calling (the city out) on the same thing I was standing on then,” Shelby said. “They’re saying I’m stepping on their toes and I’m saying, ‘If I’m stepping on your toes, then your toes must be pointing in the wrong direction.’”
As more people seek out resources, they face more barriers.
The reasons vary: not having an ID, Social Security card or a birth certificate; or having a substance use disorder while trying to enter a shelter with strict regulations. Some local shelters even have strict rules that require unsheltered LGBTQ+ people enroll in classes that focus on their lifestyle. These types of shelters ask people entering their facilities to participate in religious-centered programs.
Requirements like these deter people who are in dire need from seeking help. This, advocates say, is a high-barrier entry program.
So, some folks opt to stay in encampments. Newer programs aim to break that cycle.
Although the topic of housing security has been elevated for the past year, the rollout of solutions has been slow. City leaders outlined several programs and services months ago. Some of which were still being teased out even as other more temporary measures were deployed.
Brian Platt, city manager of Kansas City, admits addressing the unhoused takes time.
“We understand that frustration that things feel like they’re taking a long time,” Platt said. “The gears of government turn slowly, to be honest. But they do turn and we are making some progress.”
In May, city spokesman Chris Hernandez listed several programs that were in the works:
- “We are building a tiny home village to provide transitional housing and full wraparound services on site, including health care and 24-hour caseworkers. There will be 140 beds in 65 ‘Pallet Homes.’
- We have housed nearly 400 in hotels to provide a warm, safe place to stay rather than a tent on the streets. This is an emergency, 90-day program, with social services provided onsite through the support of many partner agencies.
- The Bartle Hall Warming Center provided a safe, warm place to stay for an average of 307 people nightly during the worst two months of the winter.
- The City Council has established an Unhoused Task Force that includes members of the unhoused community and other stakeholders, all at the same table with council members to develop long term policies.
- The City has invested $8.5 million in the past year to serve those experiencing homelessness, using COVID relief funding (and our normally budgeted funds) to help those thrown into poverty due to the pandemic and loss of jobs. This funding supports community organizations that provide housing, emergency shelter, outreach, counseling, rent and utility assistance and other services to KCMO residents.
- To prevent homelessness, an additional $14.8 million in federal relief is now available to tenants through several community organizations. Go to www.kcmo.gov/renthelp for more info, an online application and the list of agencies to call for immediate help.
- We are creating a new, stand-alone Housing Department to focus on tenant advocacy, unhoused solutions, affordable housing and community development.
- The KCMO Land Bank will be selling 111 vacant and abandoned homes for $1 to organizations that can renovate them and then rent to those experiencing homeless, or those in the lowest income brackets.
- We will build hundreds of affordable housing units as part of the Barney Allis Plaza renovation in downtown Kansas City.”
Here are updates on some of those major initiatives:
- The pallet home program, which could provide housing and wraparound services, is at a standstill. Houston DeFoe, founder of Merging KC, who introduced this concept last April, says the homes are ready to ship. All they’re waiting for is one stroke of the pen to get them to Kansas City. The barriers they’ve faced are neighborhoods not wanting a high density of the unhoused population in one area.
- City officials have confirmed that Bartle Hall will not be opened as a warming center, as it was last year. Even so, they said there are other temporary measures in place. This has folks who are currently on the streets worried about where to go.
- The Houseless Task Force, according to some sources, is losing representation from houseless members and leaders. Organizers of The Kansas City Homeless Union have left the task force, citing inaction as the primary reason.
- The Land Bank program didn’t receive as many submissions as initially expected. Nonprofit organizations who spoke with Flatland a few months ago said the plan was poorly thought out and that not only would it be costly to rehabilitate homes, but also take time for the homes to be up to code.
- An additional Request For Proposals (RFP) was issued in August to acquire properties such as hotels, schools and old nursing homes, to create up to 500 new, affordable housing units across the city at a lower cost and more quickly than building new units. The submitted proposals are under review.
- Thursday, the City Council is in talks as it tries to come to an agreement on what to do next.
Such delays are part of the reason why folks pitch tents. But they keep getting swept away during clean-ups.
The unhoused community’s security now hangs in the balance as winter approaches, hinging on government decision-making.
Some unhoused folks like Lulu Livingston are unfazed when they hear a sweep of their encampment is coming. She said she expects to have their belongings swept.
Flatland reached out to the Parks and Recreation Department officials about how they reduce harm during clean-ups, as they call them. Roosevelt Lyons, interim director of Parks and Recreation, said in an email:
“KC Parks does not perform ‘sweeps’. We never take or throw away anyone’s belongings. Individuals are given 24-72 hours to remove their belongings,” Lyons wrote, adding.
“We work closely with Care Beyond the Boulevard to help find services for the individuals. We typically alert our service provider first and they send outreach coordinators out to a site to offer services. If a park needs to be cleaned, we generally give the individuals at the site 24-72 hours to gather their belongings and make other arrangements for shelter. Only if the individuals refuse to take their (belongings) will KCPD be called to assist.”
He cited several ordinances that encampments could violate, which include:
Sec. 53-7 of the Code of Ordinances: All city parks and trails shall be open to the public between the hours of 5:00 a.m. and midnight. (Ord. No. 170388 , § 2, 6-8-17)
Sec. 50-107 of the Code of Ordinances: Tenting without consent of landowner. No person shall put or keep and maintain or occupy any tent or covered wagon as a habitation or place of living or lodging, either temporarily or otherwise, upon any vacant or unenclosed lot or grounds within the city, unless such person is the owner of such lot or ground, or has a lease from the owner thereof. (Code of Gen. Ords. 1967, § 26.55)
Lyons explained that the Parks and Recreation Department actually works with service providers to help individuals find safer housing options.
For instance, over a two-week period outreach workers from Care Beyond the Boulevard, Hope Faith Ministries, ReDiscover, ReStart and Crossline Community Outreach have been at the encampment located at Margaret Kemp Park daily.
In his email, Lyons expounded on what he considered a successful outcome:
“Through their collective efforts (over a two week period) were able to get people connected to vital services resulting in;
- 12 individuals accepting assistance to recover Vital Documents (Birth Certificate/ID). These are important first steps to gain housing and employment
- 2 individuals sought housing at temporary shelters
- 2 individuals found accommodations with friends and family
- 6 individuals agreed to and completed Housing Assessments. They were all successfully referred to housing programs. Referrals to programs were communicated to those we could find on 8/23.”
‘In the same situation’
So, what are the solutions? Who should be part of the unhoused solutions mosaic?
Alfredo Palocol, executive director of Lotus Care House, is focused on transitional housing by way of converting an old motel into temporary housing. As the program is built out and more community partners come to the table, Lotus Care House also hopes to provide permanent supportive housing with on-site supportive services.
He plans on piloting a low-barrier, harm-reduction facility that is focused on housing first. The details for the program, he added, are still being ironed out.
Lotus Care House has 39 rooms where folks who need shelter and social services can stay months at a time. By being a hub for employment, social services and housing, Palocol said folks will be able to take the next step to be independent.
Palocol came to the Midwest from Los Angeles, where he began working as a caseworker. He said this crisis has continued to fester and, at root, it’s a systemic problem.
“We’re kind of in the same situation now that we were a year ago,” Palocol said.
That’s why he’s busy painting and rehabbing a former hotel on 5100 Linwood Blvd., making it a navigation center that connects people with resources and brings resources to the people. He starts early and goes where the people are.
As Flatland shadowed him, Palocol was busy taking calls intermittently and excusing himself to sign folks up for whatever they needed. The people come first. This work requires commitment, he said.
Some days, he and his team members go to the downtown Kansas City Public Library, where unhoused folks go to escape the heat or cold. Many of the people he encounters there know to seek him out.
That’s part of establishing trust with the community. By combining street outreach with a housing navigation center, people with limited resources — such as transportation or even communication — can find what they need wherever they are.
Lotus Care House is fairly new but is using methods that have worked in larger cities on the West Coast, he explained. But that’s just the beginning and this is a temporary measure.
What about longer term?
Stacey Johnson-Cosby, a real estate agent and local housing provider, contends for-profit providers like her should be considered as part of the solution to securing permanent housing for folks who need it. Johnson-Cosby said she has already done that, on a small scale.
“My husband and I, for many of our rentals, we accept Section 8 vouchers and we house formerly homeless veterans,” she said. “We are all around that homeless issue.”
Johnson-Cosby participates in the area’s Veterans Association’s Supportive Housing (VASH) program and serves on two steering committees to help students facing homelessness in the Center and Hickman Mills school districts. She is also the president of Kansas City Regional Housing Alliance.
This year, for instance, she and her husband purchased a home to rent to a family who had been unhoused for some time.
“We promised the family that we will stay with them until their last child graduates from high school,” she explained. “That is long-term support that our families will not fail.”
Her idea is to expand that concept and make room for a program for local property owners to bridge the gap for lower-cost rental needs. Providers like Johnson-Cosby and her husband say they let tenants pay what they can, then the Section 8 voucher covers the rest.
But the city is concerned this kind of plan won’t work best for everyone.
“We’re talking about creating ultra low affordable housing,” Platt said. “We’re not talking about a small discount on the rent. We’re talking about people who cannot pay anything in rent or maybe $50 to $100 a month in rent. And that type of approach and perspective doesn’t always include everyone.”
In his brief 10-month tenure, Platt’s been part of the discussions happening about the unhoused crisis. His focus has been, and continues to be, on permanent housing programs.
As deliberations of what to do next are teased out, folks continue to wait — in their cars, on the lawn outside of 10th and Harrison or in and out of shelters that may or may not accept them.
“I really wish that I could do more so this freak show of a spending spree the city is doing would end,” Dusty said. “They would rather send somebody to a nursing home and pay $4,000 something a month than to help them get on their feet so they can be self-sufficient after a few months.”
Time is running out and the temperature is dipping.
“Winter’s coming and every day we’re getting a step closer,” Shelby said. “We’re in a race for our lives.”
This story is part of a series on housing issues in the Kansas City region produced by the KC Media Collective, an initiative designed to support and enhance local journalism. Members of the KC Media Collective include KCUR 89.3, American Public Square, Kansas City PBS/Flatland, Missouri Business Alert, Startland News and The Kansas City Beacon.