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A Kansas City church steps up to shelter unhoused residents before 'dangerous' cold hits region

A man bends over to pull out a red, padded chair buried in a stack of other chairs. Beside him are stacks of blankets and quilts piled on top of a single cot.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Rev. Randy Fikki pulls out one of his congregation's usual church-service chairs Monday near where a pile of collected blankets and quilts wait for his Unity Southeast Church to host more houseless people as another cold front moves through the region.

Unity Southeast Church on Meyer Boulevard has gathered 50 cots used last year when Bartle Hall was temporarily used as a warming center. Rev. Randy Fikke says he felt moved to add more shelter space in the face of more extreme weather.

With Kansas City facing more snow and temperatures dropping potentially to 10 below on Wednesday, shelters in the metro are bracing for another influx of people needing to escape the bitter cold.

Beginning Wednesday night, the National Weather Service has predicted "dangerous wind chills" in the area and light snow fall of up to 2 inches.

Last weekend, when the season’s first significant freeze hit the area, Unity Southeast Church on Meyer Boulevard replaced its congregation seating with rows of cots for unhoused people.

Unity Southeast plans to open again at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, and will remain available for overnight sleeping through Friday morning.

James Jones, who has been houseless for 23 years, spent one night in Unity Southeast on Saturday. Usually, he stays in a tent near Admiral Boulevard and The Paseo, but when it comes to cold weather, he says it’s an ongoing struggle.

“The way that this weather’s been lately, and how I figure it’s going to be the rest of the winter, we’re in for it,” Jones says. “And there’s gotta be a more permanent solution to this than just shuffling us around.”

Kansas City’s cold weather response

In November, Kansas City unveiled a new extreme weather plan to better coordinate aid for unhoused residents. The program kicks in when the daytime high is below 32 degrees, or nighttime temperatures drop below 20 degrees.

It calls for, among other things, the city to coordinate more closely with its shelter partners; provide overflow space when shelters are full; and create permanent housing options in the future.

The city also unveiled an online dashboardshowing the availability of beds at overnight shelters.

Rows of gray and green cots like on their side inside a white church. Behind them are several red, padded chairs in a circle while a woman sits in one and and a standing man talks on a phone.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Fifty cots that were used last year inside Bartle Hall, when it was a warming center, lie inside Unity Southeast's chapel on Monday night after the first weekend of the church sheltering houseless people from the extreme cold.

Jones says he carries a cell phone and knows that Kansas City’s dashboard exists, but he’s been frustrated trying to use it.

“It'll be something like it says that you got x amount of beds open,” Jones says. “But in the x amount of time that it took me from talking to you to getting here, that all these beds have mysteriously came up being filled?”

Kansas City Councilmember Ryana Parks-Shaw acknowledged that the first cold snap presented challenges for the city to execute its plan.

“There’s a few hiccups that we’ve had, but fortunately the partners we have had jumped in and been proactive and been flexible and made it successful,” Parks-Shaw said.

Parks-Shaw said the shelters generally update their available bed count at 12:30 p.m. each day for the city’s dashboard. But she said people should still call the shelter to confirm those spaces, because there’s a lag from when the numbers are manually posted to what is currently available.

Kansas City communications director Chris Hernandez said they've also tweaked some bus routes to make it easier to travel between the different warming centers, and are continuing to work with shelters to better keep the dashboard up to date.

In the meantime, Parks-Shaw said people can call the United Way 2-1-1 hotline if they need assistance finding shelter.

“We understand we have a plan,” Parks-Shaw said. “But mother nature dictates how we have to manipulate and change things.”

What happens when the freeze hits

Unity Southeast’s Rev. Randy Fikki said he was grateful for Kansas City’s willingness to help, but feels like the city is repeating the same mistakes it made in previous years in caring for unhoused residents.

The inside of a church is filled with rows of cots, side by side, Thursday night covered with white sheets and pillows. There are about 50 cots in the photo.
Kelly Isola
Project SanctUs
Unity Southeast Church lined up cots collected from the City of Kansas City before the building was opened to houseless people seeking shelter from the cold last Thursday. These cots were used in Bartle Hall last year when it was temporarily used as a warming center.

As cold weather gripped the region last Thursday, Fikki took matters into his own hands, personally seeking out people on the street to shelter at his church.

Fikki gathered some volunteers, church members and family, and was able to obtain cots used in Bartle Hall last year when the city turned it into a warming center, along with sheets, blankets and pillows.

“I was really baffled why someone wasn’t doing something,” Fikki said.

Fikki and his team set about making flyers and driving around the city collecting anyone who wanted to spend the night in his church. Some people arrived by bus, and one was even dropped off by a police cruiser.

Unity Southeast kept many of their visitors until Sunday, through the Chiefs’ game.

“It was cold outside,” Fikki said. “We just continued to let them in as long as everybody was able to continue to create a community of caretaking.”

Parks-Shaw cited Fikki’s efforts at his church as an example of the community stepping up in the face of the changing conditions.

“If there’s a need that maybe didn’t get identified, people are jumping in and helping,” Parks-Shaw said. “We’re looking for any other partners who are willing to help.”

For the upcoming freeze, Fikki said his church is in dire need of more blankets and food donations.

While James Jones said he was grateful for Unity Southeast’s efforts, he was still uncertain of where he’d go when temperatures drop again. During the day, he spends his time at Hope Faith Homeless Assistance Camps, and was considering just staying in his tent at night.

“You gotta kind of add things like tarps and a blanket over your tent and that kind of insulates it a little bit more,” he said. “I feel that our city leaders and the people that are supposedly out there advocating for this, that and the other for us, I really need them to step up.”

As KCUR’s general assignment reporter and visual journalist, I bring our audience inside the daily stories that matter most to the people of the Kansas City metro, showing how and why events affect residents. Through my photography, I seek to ensure our diverse community sees itself represented in our coverage. Email me at carlos@kcur.org.
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