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'Toxins Don't Stop At Property Lines': Homeless Population Camps At Potentially Hazardous Site

Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Elijah Cluke, right, and Cody Doolin have intermittently lived at a potentially contaminated site at Independence Avenue and Paseo Boulevard for roughly seven years.

City officials say there's no contamination at the location where people are camping, but nearby residents say it's known that the area is contaminated.

A growing homeless population is now camping at a potentially hazardous waste site after being asked to relocate by Kansas City officials.

More than 20 tents are lined across city property that borders the site of the former Chouteau Courts apartments and Belvidere Park. The public housing site was demolished a couple of years ago due to unsafe conditions as part of a Choice Neighborhoods initiative to redevelop the area.

Columbus Park residents say they’ve expressed concerns to City Manager Brian Platt that people living at the site, at Independence Avenue and Paseo Boulevard, could be exposed to toxic substances.

“They are literally going up there in their bare feet. They're cooking on this ground. They're laying on the ground in tents with the total approval of the Kansas City government and Brian Platt and the mayor,” said Henry Rizzo, a former chair of the Jackson County Legislature and a former Missouri state legislator.

Platt said there is no contamination to his knowledge at the site where people are camping. He said there may be some confusion because the site is on a large plot of land, with portions that are “clean” and others that are not.

Rizzo, a longtime Columbus Park resident, said it's well known that the entire area is a toxic site.

“The whole area is covered in toxins and, you know, toxins don't stop at property lines,” Rizzo said.

A 2018 environmental site assessment identified 10 recognized environmental conditions, or RECs, at the Chouteau site. A REC is defined as the presence or likely presence of any hazardous substances or petroleum products.

The assessment, by Olsson Engineering, listed 10 gas stations and dry cleaning services that were once there as likely having the presence of “chemicals of concern” in the sub-surface of the property. Those were caused by the release of vapors from contaminated soil or groundwater either on or near the property, according to the assessment.

In 2019, a Kansas City-led coalition applied for funding from the Environmental Protection Agency to address brownfields across the area. The application stated that before 1958, a poor community living in impoverished housing resided on the Chouteau site until it was demolished and filled for construction of an adjacent highway interchange.

According to the application, the fill caused chronic structural problems in the housing units. It also said that a preliminary assessment identified elevated levels of lead, arsenic and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.

The coalition received $1.4 million in EPA Brownfields Program funding in 2020 for cleanup planning and assessment in the region.

Andrew Bracker, Kansas City’s brownfields coordinator, told a Columbus Park resident that the program was preparing to begin another round of testing of the area.

“The data from this next assessment will help us better understand the site conditions and plan a path forward for the safe use of the properties now and to prepare them for redevelopment,” Bracker said in an email to resident Kate Barsotti.

The homeless residents recently relocated to the site after being asked to evacuate a nearby median. Kansas City University, a nearby osteopathic school, officials and community members had voiced concerns that the median was an unsafe location for its residents and drivers.

This wasn’t the first time the city has tried to relocate the camps to the Columbus Park location. The city considered creating a tent camp there last winter before pushback from community members.

The city sparked similar outrage when it proposed building a campus of tiny homes there to serve several hundred homeless people being sheltered in hotel rooms.

Some of the homeless people living on the site said they’d heard rumors about potential hazardous waste but weren't sure if they were true. Even if they were, they said there aren't many other shelter options for them after the city’s hotel stays ended in mid-July and other relocation efforts fell through.

“They said they were going to help the homeless with housing and all that stuff. They got everybody's hopes up,” said Elijah Cluke, who lives at the site.

Cluke said he had left and returned over the last several years, but an influx of other homeless people had joined in the last few weeks. The rapidly growing population is causing concerns for both camp residents and community members since there are often outbreaks of violence nearby.

Platt said that unless there is “a clear and present danger” at the site, the city will wait until more housing options are available in the next couple of months before attempting to move people to a more permanent relocation.

That’s not soon enough for Rizzo, who said that if it’s a toxic waste site, even one more day living there is too long. Rizzo said that he and other Columbus Park residents have considered taking legal action against the city to get the homeless group off the lot. But since the city can claim that they are only there temporarily, he said he anticipates hitting a brick wall with any legal action.

Platt said the city is working on solutions that would allow it to rapidly house those who are living in the estimated 170 encampments across the city. The city is now looking to convert vacant or unused facilities, like hotels, apartment buildings, nursing homes or schools, into permanent housing for the city’s unhoused population.

More than ever, education lies at the intersection of equity, housing, funding, and other diverse issues facing Kansas City’s students, families and teachers. As KCUR’s education reporter, I’ll break down the policies driving these issues in schools and report what’s happening in our region's classrooms. You can reach me at jodifortino@kcur.org.
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