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Kansas City Scrambles To Find Shelter For Homeless Population Before Freezing Temperatures Hit

A man relaxes outside his tent in a camp near the corner of The Paseo and Independence Avenue last week. City officials and homeless advocates are grappling with how to deal with the houseless as cold weather approaches.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
A man relaxes outside his tent in a camp near the corner of The Paseo and Independence Avenue last week. City officials and homeless advocates are grappling with how to deal with the houseless as cold weather approaches.

City officials and community members are grappling with the complicated matter of housing the homeless population as winter rapidly approaches.

Autumn has arrived in Kansas City, and with temperatures reaching into the 90s this weekend, winter weather still seems far away. But city officials are already scrambling to figure out how they’ll shelter the area’s homeless population before cold temperatures arrive.

At a virtual meeting convened Monday by Kansas City Councilwoman Melissa Robinson, Laura Remy, treasurer of the Independence Plaza neighborhood council, expressed disappointment, saying she expected the city to be farther along with its winter plans.

“It's September, you know, last year was scary. There were people out in below freezing temperatures and the city scrambled to find them shelter, so it was somewhat surprising that we're not further along,” Remy told KCUR.

Last year, freezing temperatures prompted the city to open a temporary warming center at Bartle Hall to provide overnight shelter to Kansas City’s homeless population. Robinson said they’ll now need to look at other venues since the hall won't be available this winter.

Safety concerns

Remy said her neighborhood has a number of homeless people living in camps, but it's most impacted by people dwelling in abandoned houses and buildings.

She said the situation creates hygiene concerns for its homeless occupants, who don’t have access to working plumbing or water. Those conditions, she said, present a hazard to the people who live in adjoining homes.

Remy said community concerns are growing, as those who reside in the vacant buildings often light fires to stay warm.

“One (fire) resulted in the death of a homeless person and the other one resulted in injury to three people that had to go to the hospital,” Remy said. “It's a real safety situation in our neighborhood when unhomed persons seek shelter in our vacated structures."

Evie Craig, president of the Paseo West Neighborhood Association and executive director of Arts Asylum, a local theatre and arts nonprofit, said she also went into the meeting expecting the city to be presenting solutions, not asking for them.

“What are our plans for when it gets cold and if we have individuals out there with compromised health conditions?” Craig told KCUR. “Tell us please what your plans are if we wake up, as we did in February, with temperatures below zero for a significant enough period of time that it is dangerous.”

Bartle Hall housed hundreds early this year as night temperatures dipped below freezing for weeks.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Bartle Hall housed hundreds of people early this year as night temperatures dipped below freezing for weeks. But it won't be available to shelter Kansas City's homeless population this year.

Different solutions offered

While city officials and the Houseless Task Force provided updates at Monday’s meeting, Craig said she wanted to hear more about how the city will work with providers who offer services to homeless people.

Remy said many who attended the meeting wanted information on how the city has spent the $8.5 million it says it has expended to serve homeless people. She said she’d like to see more money go toward existing service providers, many of which have had to limit their capacity during the pandemic.

KC Tenants leader Harvey Nash, who was once homeless himself, pointed to the number of abandoned properties across the city that could be used to shelter the homeless.

“I think there's a whole lot of solutions to the problem that we're facing," Nash told KCUR. "But I think that the city needs to take a real honest look at what's going on out here."

A leader of the Kansas City Homeless Union said he would prefer that the city allow the homeless to shelter in place this winter. James “Qadhafi” Shelby said being forced to move causes trauma to the homeless, who already have very little stability in their lives.

He said some people feel safer living in their encampments than they do in regular shelters. He said those people need basic supplies like port-a-potties, water, tents and blankets.

What’s next

Members of the task force said the city is already working on similar solutions, including converting vacant or unused facilities like hotels, apartment buildings and schools into permanent housing for the city’s homeless population.

After putting out a call for proposals last month, they said the city has received 19 applications from service providers and developers. Taskforce members also said they’ll be working with service providers to find out what their plans are and what they need.

“We can already feel that it's starting to get cold, so this should have been happening in July, August,” said Marqueia Watson, vice chair of the task force. “But here we are, so we're doing our best as a taskforce to figure out how to be as thoughtful and inclusive and expeditious in getting something off the ground.”

The task force will now review the ideas offered at Monday’s meeting. On the list is a forum to hear from unsheltered people, providing a centralized place to find housing resources and looking into an alternative to the Bartle Hall warming center.

The next taskforce meeting is set for Oct. 4.

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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