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Northeast Kansas City residents want more say over a low-barrier homeless shelter

About 50 people sit and stand, filling up a room
Savannah Hawley-Bates
KCUR 89.3
At a meeting in January 2023 to discuss a low-barrier shelter in the Historic Northeast, many residents voiced opposition.

Advocates say that Kansas City won't be able to end chronic homelessness without a low-barrier shelter — a place without religious teachings, that doesn’t require guests first to take job training or get sober. But after pushback from the neighborhood, Kansas City Council is starting from square one.

People gather near the Hope Faith Homeless Assistance Campus all day long.

Some carry backpacks sagging with belongings. Others come empty-handed. Many have no interest in going inside. Instead, they hang out to chat, organize their belongings, or simply stare into space.

In the blocks surrounding Hope Faith at 705 Virginia Ave., people sit in the grass talking or sleeping. One man, oblivious to his surroundings, urinates where he stands.

Jannett Wylie and other people sleep outside NourishKC’s Community Kitchen, two blocks away from Hope Faith. Once, a man looking for Wylie’s ex-boyfriend pulled a knife on her and took her cellphone.

“Some people will just randomly go off on somebody that’s innocent because of something that somebody else has done to them,” she said. “I feel safer the majority of the time on the inside than the outside because you never know what a person is thinking.”

Opening up a center where Wylie and others can spend the night has been complicated by pushback from nearby residents.

The Kansas City Council reversed its plan, in response to those neighborhood objections, to give $7.1 million in federal funding for an overnight emergency shelter at Hope Faith.

People championing the city’s ambitions of essentially ending chronic homelessness by 2030 say it won’t happen without alow-barrier shelter— a place without religious teachings, that doesn’t require guests first to take job training or get sober.

Residents say city officials have failed to win over the neighborhood where they want to put that shelter — by neither conveying the critical need for one big, low-barrier shelter nor offering concessions like more police patrols and fewer potholes.

Winning over Northeast residents

People hang out in a community room. Hope Faith Homeless Assistance campus has applied for federal funding to become a low-barrier homeless shelter.
Mili Mansaray
The Beacon
People hang out in a community room. Hope Faith Homeless Assistance campus has applied for federal funding to become a low-barrier homeless shelter.

The Northeast has been a magnet for immigrants and refugees in recent years, and the neighborhood provides a number of the city’s homeless services. Evie Craig, president of the Paseo West Neighborhood Association, said the concerns residents express about the shelter are layered.

“Taxpayers have to pay for (services) and we have a right to expect a return on that,” she said. “It’s a situation where we’re all neighbors, not antagonists.”

Some Northeast residents call for spreading homeless services across the city rather than concentrating those things in their neighborhood. Craig said places like True Light Family Resource Center near 31st and Holmes streets offer low-barrier services and could benefit from a piece of the pie.

“There’s a joint responsibility that providers have to the community, to funders and to the people they serve to ensure that everybody has a place to go and feel safe.”

Doug Langner, the executive director of Hope Faith, said residents and business owners have repeatedly told him they’re worried about safety.

“I live downtown and some of their concerns are my own concerns,” he said. “I want my family to be safe, too.”

Langner walks to work from the East Village and talks to residents about any crimes that they witness. He’s seen them, too. And homeless people aren’t the only ones committing them.

“We have instances where people are trying to take advantage of those coming in for services,” he said. Langner said some people try to force homeless people into sex work or sell them drugs.

At a neighborhood meeting, Langner discussed the idea of working with police, the fire department, the public works department and park rangers to help with safety enforcement.

People also worry about concentrating homeless people in the neighborhood. But Langner said Hope Faith, which moved to its Virginia Avenue location from the Crossroads in 2012, serves a population that’s already in the area.

“This is where they’re at,” he said.

He said that complaints to the city’s 311 line about homeless people dropped between 70% and 90% when the facility had an overnight emergency center during the winter.

Houston cut its homeless rate in half between 2011 and 2021 after the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development pressured the city to fix the problem.

The Coalition for the Homeless of Houston/Harris County established the Housing Navigation Center in 2023 as a part of its encampment strategy, said CEO Kelly Young. The low-barrier shelter for people waiting for housing takes in pets and entire encampment groups.

Young said the Navigation Center was initially moved into the 5th Ward with very little warning for residents.

“It was not,” Young said, “necessarily looked upon favorably in the beginning.”

But neighborhood resistance faded bit by bit. Meetings helped. People in the homeless coalition gave their phone numbers to business owners with promises to respond when problems came up.

“If there was an issue or a complication,” she said, “we were available to them.”

Initially, the shelter focused on people who’d been pushed out of homeless camps. Then the center started taking in homeless people from the neighborhood — even as it told them they couldn’t hang around outside. That helped win over the neighborhood.

“If you assess the community and you’re clear about what their needs are,” she said, “you may find all sorts of things that you didn’t even know they want and is an easy fix.”

What has the city done to get people on board?

A man in a blue blazer and pants stands holding a microphone in the left foreground. To the right, in front of the man, is a crowd of about 50 people sitting and standing along a room.
Savannah Hawley-Bates
KCUR 89.3
City Manager Brian Platt at a meeting at Hope Faith to discuss low-barrier shelter plans in January 2023.

HUD lists five public participation guidelines for agencies spending federal pandemic relief money. Too often, HUD says, cities charge ahead without input from residents.

Joe Cook agrees. He’s the shipping manager for A. Zahner metalworking firm a block behind Hope Faith on East Ninth Street.

Cook said he wants the city to build a low-barrier shelter. Both Hope Faith and City Union Mission — which operates a men’s shelter at 1108 E. 10th St. — have listened to his safety concerns. But he thinks the neighborhood needs more police presence to deal with homeless encampments and trash.

“Right now, everybody that congregates outside of Hope Faith is unsupervised,” he said.

Josh Henges, the city’s homeless prevention coordinator, said he understands the value of talking with people in the neighborhood. But seemingly endless discussions, to his thinking, could mean unending delays that would torpedo the city’s efforts to make real progress getting people off the street at night.

“It’s about valuing the expertise of a plan or a strategy,” he said. “You might make some modifications, maybe, but overall the goal has to be letting the community know what direction we’re headed in.”

But he’s been left off the committee looking at the latest round of proposals — and 3rd District City Council member Melissa Robinson has been added.

Young, who helped build the Houston shelter, said part of that city’s success came from finding middle ground among providers, residents, homeless people and the city. But she said decision makers had to surrender the idea of pleasing everyone.

“It won’t be perfect, ever,” she said. “We could have taken 10 years to figure out how to do this. Instead, we said, ‘We’re going to move forward.’”

This story was originally published by The Beacon, a fellow member of the KC Media Collective.

Mili Mansaray is the housing and labor reporter at The Kansas City Beacon. Previously, she was a freelance reporter and Summer 2020 intern.
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