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Kansas City's storage bin initiative for homeless draws ire online

A man at a small area near Paseo and I-70 where several small homeless camps popped up in December 2020.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
A man uses a small area for an encampment near Paseo and I-70, where several small homeless camps have popped up. With the introduction of storage bins, Kansas City hopes to encourage unhoused people to use shelters

An initiative by Kansas City leaders to provide storage bins for the city's unhoused population has received significant pushback, with critics calling the containers—which resemble trash bins—demeaning.

The program, a partnership between the city of Kansas City and the Downtown Council, is part of the city's extreme weather plan, and is being introduced a little over a year after two unhoused men died in freezing weather.

The city is making available more than 70 storage bins, called "heart carts." They're 30-gallon, blue plastic containers, not unlike city-issued recycling bins. They'll be locked in a facility not far from the shelters and emergency service centers for houseless people on the east side of downtown. Those who store property in the bins will be have access to the facility on designated days of the week.

Soon after the announcement, however, online critics condemned the storage bins as patronizing.

“Storage carts”- that’s clearly a garbage can with an s**t re-brand,” reads one post.

“Heart Carts?” Seriously?” reads another.

An image posted on Reddit reads,"Housing? Best I Can Do Is A Trash Can."

A derogatory post on social media, criticizing Kansas City's plan to offer those experiencing homelessness a storage bin resembling a trash can.
A derogatory post on social media, criticizing Kansas City's plan to offer those experiencing homelessness a storage bin resembling a trash can.

Ryana Parks-Shaw, 5th District councilwoman and chair of the city’s Houseless Task Force, said the city developed the initiative after surveying more than 100 unhoused people.

“We asked them, ‘What would it take to get you to go to someplace warm, out of freezing weather, someplace that may save your life?’” Parks-Shaw said.

The city overwhelmingly heard that a safe place to store belongings is what unhoused people needed, she said.

“The optics are not as relevant as the assistance we are providing to those individuals who are using them,” Parks-Shaw said. “We are meeting a need that they requested.”

Downtown Council Vice President Sean O’Byrne said Kansas City looked at the success of similar programs in other cities. Caseworkers and social service providers will be available to individuals when they come to the facility, he said; it's not just about storing personal belongings.

O’Byrne said officials have received insulting emails, attacks and disturbing photographs.

“People who see the bins as trash cans don’t understand the entire, complex problem,” he said. “And it’s a shame because we’re talking about people’s lives.”

Councilwoman Parks-Shaw said officials recognize this is one small step among many the city is taking to address homelessness.

But Patricia Bordallo Dibildox, a leader at KC Tenants, is not convinced.

A citywide tenant's union, KC Tenants has previously pushed Kansas City’s leadership on issues such as eviction, funding for affordable housing andrenters' right to counsel.

The city has taken action on a number of these challenges. It has established a special department and staffing dedicated to addressing the needs of houseless people. $16 million has been distributed in emergency rental assistance and the city's website has an emergency dashboard to expedite the process of finding beds and services for those experiencing homelessness.

But Bordallo Dibildox sees the storage bins as a Band-Aid on a bigger problem.

“I would believe the city’s interest if they weren’t, in the same breath, making sweeps of the houseless camps,” she said. “I understand that it is a small step, but we’re beyond small steps. We need [the city] to house all these people. We don’t need to provide storage for them.”

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