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Spike In Homelessness In Kansas City And Lawrence Inspires Fresh Ideas

Aerial view of the Woody Park encampment for the homeless in a small park northwest of downtown Lawrence, Kansas.
Woody Park
Aerial view of the Woody Park encampment for the homeless in a small park northwest of downtown Lawrence, Kansas.

The situation has become worrisome enough that organizations are trying new ideas and in some cases teaming up to address a long-running need.

It may not have been perfect, but Leslie Vaughn’s delicate financial balance had always worked for her until this year.

Most of the time she had two jobs – “I’m not afraid of hard work,” she says – and her partner got contract work cleaning for businesses. The couple needed to replace the car, but a tax refund was supposed to take care of that.

Then the coronavirus pandemic came along and blew it all up. The jobs dried up, the tax refund was less than expected and in July, Vaughn, her partner and three college-age children found themselves evicted. She dipped into the little money the family had left to store their possessions.

Now Vaughn is an example of what keeps community service organizers up at night – a spike in first-time homelessness brought about by unemployment.

With winter here and coronavirus infections surging, the organizations that try to help homeless people are nervously eyeing the jump in homelessness last March to get an idea of what may be in the offing.

The $900 billion congressional stimulus bill that President Trump finally signed into law on Dec. 27 provides enhanced unemployment benefits until March 14 and extends a moratorium on evictions through Jan. 31. When those relief packages end, many Kansas City non-profits expect to see another jump in the numbers of people who need help staying in their homes.

“We saw a 26 percent increase pretty much instantly because of all those people affected by job shortages and furloughs,” said Jaysen Van Sickle, CEO of the Hope Faith Homeless Assistance Campus in Kansas City, referring to the period in March. Since then, he said, his group has seen about 6,000 new people seeking help.

Hope Faith provides services for, but does not house, people experiencing homelessness.

Mathew Faulk, program manager of the Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center in Lawrence, agrees.

“It’ll be a huge problem,” he said.

About $850,000 in federal money was set aside to help people in Lawrence with housing issues, but that’s all been used up.

Without more coming, “the entire country is going to be facing a major, major problem,” Faulk said. “I would expect even in Douglas County hundreds of households facing eviction. Maybe more.”

New ideas

The situation has become worrisome enough that organizations are trying new ideas and in some cases teaming up to address a long-running need. In Lawrence, a “city” of 20 tents has been set up in a park. It’s full.

Hope Faith took over a city block on Virginia Street to offer Covid testing, counseling and other services in tents. KC Tenants, a tenants rights organization, has shifted its focus from policy issues like a renters’ bill of rights to helping people navigate the eviction process.

KC Tenants has been helping Vaughn sort out the sometimes confusing array of assistance programs that often differ from county to county. But still, the experience has been overwhelming, Vaughn said.

“There’s a lot of stuff out there, but I feel like I’m going in circles.”

Vaughn’s story is a study in how life can quickly be upended for an essential worker with a narrow margin of error for financial mistakes.

Vaughn, 46, said her work as a medical receptionist and her partner’s as a contract cleaner always provided enough for them to make their rent payments. But when restaurants closed, a lot of his jobs went away. She took out a payday loan to keep the water and lights on, hoping to catch up on things when the tax refund came in. But the IRS was also late, and their problems were made worse by an error in her filing.

Their eviction came in the summer, before the federal Centers
for Disease Control moratorium was enacted in September.

The eviction has made it harder to get a new place because the family has to pay off $5,000 in rental expenses plus attorney fees, and many landlords won’t accept a tenant with a recent eviction. After staying with friends, Vaughn said the couple and one daughter did eventually find a place. But the family has been split up, with two of the three girls living elsewhere.

“It breaks my heart because we’ve been split up since July and with the holidays it’s just sad to me that we can’t be all together,” Vaughn said.

The stress has exacerbated her autoimmune condition, causing even more anxiety and depression, she said.

A ‘traumatic process’

Evictions were already a problem before the pandemic because of a lack of affordable housing, said Shanice Taylor of KC Tenants. Jackson County judges have issued over 720 eviction judgments since June 1, she said.

“A lot of tenants don’t know how to navigate the process because it works in favor of landlords, not tenants,” Taylor said. “It’s just a traumatic process. Right now so many people are experiencing this.”

But the pandemic also has had an impact on people whose housing has been insecure for a longer time. In Lawrence, for example, spacing requirements to contain the spread of coronavirus infections meant that a lot less space has been available in shelters, said Faulk, of the Bert Nash center.

Lawrence has always had a significant homeless population in camps scattered around the city. But as fewer people got together in the parks, the shelter houses became popular places for those encampments. It’s what prompted Derek Rogers, director of parks and recreation, to establish a tent city in a fenced off area between a playing field and playground equipment in a small park northwest of downtown.

The interior of one of the tents in Woody Park.
Roxie Hammill
The interior of one of the tents in Woody Park.

The Woody Park encampment has been a success, Rogers said. Each tent has a heater and cot, with lockable storage bins the size of trash cans outside. A few steps away are restroom and shower trailers, and near the entrance is a staff tent with a food table and donated flat-screen TV. In late December, red and white Christmas stockings hung on a line near the desk.

The Woody Park encampment houses a mix of people with different experiences of homelessness, Rogers said. Some have been without homes for a long time, others are new. To be placed there, a person must be camping outdoors and agree to the rules of conduct, said Faulk, whose mental health center handles the intake.

The idea works because residents there have a stable place where they don’t have to worry about being robbed out in the open, Rogers said. There are medical services nearby, and having the mental health center do intake means there’s a chance some of these people will get hooked up with services that eventually provide them with permanent housing, he said. The Woody Park camp will continue through March 31.

KC call to action

Lawrence’s encampment seemed like such a good idea that Sean O’Byrne, vice president of the Downtown Council of Kansas City, tried to get a similar one going in northeast Kansas City. O'Byrne said homelessness is a top concern of the council because pandemic-related limits on the library and public spaces have left few places for people to go for restrooms and to get warm.

“After the snow, we found people under tarps under an inch of snow sleeping next to the highway. I think that’s a call to action because it’s incumbent upon us to not allow our citizens to commit slow suicide in the public right of way,” O’Byrne said earlier this month on KCUR’s Up To Date.

O’Byrne said he admired the Woody Park camp because of how it’s run.

“When I look at their camp, it reminds me of a Boy Scout camp. It’s very structured,” he said.

He concedes that the nearby residents should have been brought into the conversation before the idea went public. Pushback from the neighborhood eventually caused the idea for his first choice of locations to be dropped, though O’Byrne hopes another spot can eventually be found.

But temporary encampments are not everyone’s idea of a solution. Terry Megli, CEO of City Union Mission, said he disagrees with the tent city philosophy. The camps may meet temporary needs, but “they may keep people enabled into homelessness,” he said. It’s better to build relationships with the unhomed and help them find permanent shelter, “where they don’t have to worry about the tent collapsing.”

There’s no denying the need for a solution, Megli said. City Union Mission’s family center is usually full and his organization is seeing more people who have recently lost jobs.

With the economic repercussions of the pandemic on people’s minds, it may be time for big ideas and innovation, say some community service leaders. O’Byrne suggests a “czar” to coordinate efforts among nonprofits.

In a way Hope Faith is already doing that, with its string of tents providing counseling, medical and other services for people who no longer have a permanent address. The group has blocked off the street for tents to offer these services safely, and will soon open its warehouse for a warming area, Van Sickle said.

Hope Faith and the Greater Kansas City Coalition to End Homelessness are talking about getting together to create a comprehensive program to connect people with resources they need to prevent them from losing a place to live.

“How do you stop it before it even happens? That’s really the next level of work for us,” Van Sickle said.

Rogers is also optimistic that the attention from the pandemic will provide an opportunity for government and nonprofits to work together.

“This is the perfect opportunity for collaboration,” he said. “It’s one of those things that always gets discussed. But no one agency can do it all.”

Roxie Hammill is a freelance writer who lives in Lenexa. You can reach her on Twitter at @roxiehammill.

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