As Wyandotte County prepares for winter, unhoused residents call for a permanent homeless shelter
Kansas City, Kansas, currently has no permanent emergency shelter where people can stay for the night and find showers, hot meals and referrals for health care — even as homelessness increases on that side of the metro.
Starting in late December, people with no place to escape the cold can expect blankets, a hot meal, sleeping mats and a little privacy in tents pitched indoors near Sixth Street and State Avenue in Kansas City, Kansas.
This emergency cold-weather shelter — a project led by Cross-Lines Community Outreach for those nights when the temperature drops below 25 degrees — provides a welcome refuge for people in Wyandotte County with no place to live.
Service providers say that the county currently has no permanent emergency shelter where people can stay for the night and find services such as showers, hot meals and referrals for health care and other needs.
Scott Michael Cady sleeps under a bridge in Wyandotte County. He has lived outside for four years. At one point he stayed briefly at a men’s shelter in Missouri. After a dispute with a staff member, Cady left the next morning on his bicycle.
His attempts with other Missouri shelters didn’t pan out either.
“I tried to go, but they were all full,” Cady said. “I had to go back (to Wyandotte). The people need shelter.”
The Kansas City area as a whole struggles to string together a system of shelters that meet needs of people who could be looking for refuge for a night, or seeking enough temporary stability to find long-term housing in homes or apartments.
That shortfall poses enough difficulty during good weather. But when winter freezes arrive, the stakes rocket up and finding a warm place to bed down becomes a matter of survival.
That problem looks particularly troubling in Wyandotte County, where a range of aid groups are trying to piece together shelters for this winter.
“Cold weather shelter is a community project. Providers addressing homelessness really rally around it,” said Rob Santel, director of programs for Cross-Lines Community Outreach.
Cross-Lines is leading the effort to set up the cold-weather shelter at 550 State Ave. with the Wyandot Center for Community Behavioral Healthcare, the Unified Government’s health department and Kansas City, Kansas, Public Schools.
That shelter, in a low-slung brick building, will open from 6 p.m. to 8 a.m. with enough space for 40 people. It is part of a regional effort to provide warming shelters on the coldest nights.
But those centers are seasonal. When warmer temperatures arrive, the shelters shut down and people who stayed there will either end up back on the street or look elsewhere for assistance.
Calls for permanent emergency shelter in Wyandotte County
Unhoused people in the area can turn to transitional programming, which aims to get people into long-term housing. But because most transitional programs require sobriety and participation in programs like addiction recovery, job training and life skills classes, those places often don’t work for someone who is simply looking for shelter from the elements.
“There are quite a few transitional houses that have popped up, but really none of those programs have any emergency capacity,” Santel said. “So that leaves the cold weather response as a really important component so that on those coldest of nights someone has a place to go.”
Before the COVID-19 outbreak in 2020, both Shalom House, a men’s transitional shelter, and Bridge of Hope Community Churchoffered emergency beds in Wyandotte County. But the spread of the virus forced them to close. They have since reopened, but neither has resumed offering emergency shelter.
Other transitional housing service providers in the area offer emergency shelter, but the aid is confined to specific communities. For instance, the Della Gill – Joyce H. Williams Center is reserved for people facing domestic violence. Sue’s Safe Haven is for families and children.
Lion House KC, a service of Our Spot KC, offers transitional housing and short-term rental assistance, plus two emergency beds, to LGBTQ+ people, who experience higher rates of homelessness and barriers to some housing services.
James Moran, a spokesperson for Our Spot KC, said the absence of a permanent emergency shelter in Wyandotte County makes it difficult to even get a handle on how many people are unhoused there.
The 2022 point-in-time count — a 24-hour census of people without shelter published by the Greater Kansas City Coalition to End Homelessness — identified 711 unhoused people across the Kansas City area. The group identified 201 unsheltered people in Wyandotte County in the same year.
“In Jackson County, you’ll see we have those high numbers, because there’s a huge number of facilities that surveyors can go to and get those numbers,” Moran said.
“In Wyandotte County, not so much. We’re depending on being able to find folks literally on the street to be able to survey them. That’s a direct reflection of the investment and commitment to outreach in those areas and the limited number of facilities.”
The survey has been criticized by service providers as unreliable. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which oversees the count, says it will always be hard to track such a transient population.
“HUD recognizes … the potential difficulty in finding and interviewing them in remote or hard-to-reach places,” Brian Handshy, a regional HUD spokesperson, said in an email.
Moran said failings in the homeless count have consequences because the numbers play into formulas for divvying up federal tax dollars.
“So we’re seeing less outreach and fewer facilities in Wyandotte County, which produces lower numbers on the (survey),” he said.
Two states, two stories
The concentration of shelters on the Missouri side of the Kansas City area — and the shortage in Wyandotte County — puts help out of reach for many people in a place where homelessness is increasing.
Criminal records, for example, may keep some people from crossing the state line for shelter, Moran said.
People who’ve been in prison or jail are nearly 10 times more likely to be homeless than the general public, according to the Prison Policy Initiative, and many individuals may also hesitate to cross state lines if they face arrest warrants or probation or parole restrictions.
The demand for shelter is also far outpacing the current supply.
In Wyandotte County, the number of unsheltered people went up from 68 to 120 people between 2021 and 2022, according to the point-in-time count. The count jumped from 408 to 711 in Jackson County in the same year.
But the supply of emergency shelter beds has not increased along with the population.
“We’ve lost 500 beds in the last five years,” said Santel, from Cross-Lines Community Outreach.
The shortage of beds leaves unhoused people with fewer options and greater difficulties.
“If I am unhoused, living on the street and not utilizing emergency shelter, I’m probably going to stay near my resources,” Moran said. “Where can I get food? Where can I take a shower? Where can I get health care? And then the prospect of having the one and only shelter far away from you is a transportation nightmare.”
Edward King has lived on the streets of Wyandotte County, where he grew up, for six years. He’s gone to Missouri to see what resources are offered there. But, ultimately, he prefers to stay in his community. In Kansas City, Kansas, he has access to clothing, food and medication for his chronic pain at the Wyandot Center for Community Behavioral Healthcare.
“My birth certificate is in Kansas. So I stay here,” he said. “I’m rooted in Kansas.”
Another man, who said his first name was Nick and declined to share his last name, said that when he was unhoused he stayed in Wyandotte County. He tried to go to a men’s shelter in Missouri, but the nine-month program was too restrictive for his work schedule at the time. So he returned to Kansas City, Kansas.
“You can always find a meal here every day of the week,” he said. “There are lots of places where you can get food, but Wyandotte County does need a permanent shelter.”
Zero KC 's cold weather strategy
Level 1: Open now to March 1, regardless of the temperature.
- Hope Faith, 705 Virginia Ave, Kansas City, Missouri
- True Light, 712 E 31st Street Kansas City, Missouri
- Unity Southeast, 3421 E Meyer Blvd, Kansas City, Missouri
- Hope City, 5101 E 24th St, Kansas City, Missouri
Level 2: Open now to April 1 if temperature is 32 degrees or below, 25 degrees with windchill, or 32 degrees with windchill and precipitation.
- Shelter KC for men, 1520 Cherry Street, Kansas City, Missouri
- City Union Mission men’s shelter, 1108 E. 10th Street Kansas City, Missouri
- City Union Mission women’s shelter, 1310 Wabash Avenue Kansas City, Missouri
Level 3: Open now through April 1 if temperature is 25 degrees or below, 15 degrees with windchill, or 25 degrees with windchill and precipitation.
- Heartland, referral-based. Access points at Hope Faith and Hope City
- Shelter KC for women, 2611 E. 11th Street Kansas City, Missouri
- Cross-lines, 550 State Ave., Kansas City, Kansas
Level 4: If the temperature is 0 degrees or below, each shelter will do its best to take in anyone left out in the cold.
This story was originally published by the Kansas City Beacon, a fellow member of the KC Media Collective.