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Businesses complained about homeless camps. Now Kansas City Council might criminalize them

A woman in a heavy jacket digs through an encamapment where there are a lot of tents and debris strewn about.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
People living in a former homeless encampment at the corner of 10th and Harrison dig through their belongings earlier this year when they were alerted to a camp cleanup by the city. The city council is now considering an ordinance that would make camping on private property illegal.

An ordinance before council would make loitering and camping on private property illegal. The proposal comes a year after encampments in Westport and outside City Hall drew attention to the challenges facing Kansas City's unhoused residents.

Kansas City officials are debating whether to make loitering illegal.

Last year, public encampments outside City Hall and in Westport brought heightened awareness to the challenges facing unhoused people in Kansas City — while drawing criticism from some local businesses and homeowners.

An ordinance heard by Kansas City Council members this week would give the police more power to expel unhoused residents or homeless camps from private property.

Julie Jennings, director of membership with the West Plaza Neighborhood Association, said that last year’sCamp Sixx encampment along Westport Roadwas a “detriment” to the neighborhood.

“We've had increased crime and property damage, claims and all kinds of things that we have pinned down to the homelessness issue,” Jennings said. “In my interpretation of what the amendment says, it indicates that … you're putting in place the ability of law enforcement to do something about it.”

The ordinance is one of several measures that Kansas City Council is considering around addressing homelessness. Other proposed measures include establishing hygiene facilities and a pallet shelter for unhoused residents.

Encampment and loitering laws

Kansas City does not have a clear policy on houseless encampments, which makes it difficult to determine when or if police should get involved.

Generally, city officials partner with social service agencies to conduct outreach to people living in encampments and move them into a shelter.

But the city received public criticism last year for conducting what many unhoused residents called ’sweeps’ that forced them to move. The matter was discussed during a Board of Police Commissioners meeting in February, in which outgoing Kansas City Police Chief Rick Smith said the department hasn’t issued any citations or made arrests at encampments since early 2021.

Fifth District Councilwoman Ryana Parks-Shaw said the proposed ordinance is just one effort to clarify city policies and police involvement around homeless camps.

If approved, the ordinance would make it illegal for someone to set up an encampment on private property unless they had the consent of the property owner.

The law change would also make loitering illegal — defined as standing in a public space to “willfully obstruct, impede, interfere with, hinder or delay” the movement of cars or pedestrian traffic or the conducting of business on a property.

Houseless people who were camping in Westport gather their belongings Sunday morning after being told they had to leave.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Houseless people who were camping in Westport gather their belongings after being told they had to leave.

Dorna Edgar Swan, executive director of the Waldo Area Business Association and director of the Waldo Community Improvement District, said property owners face difficulties in taking action when someone is loitering outside their business. Swan said if a police officer gets called out, the officer will say there’s nothing they can do.

“We need to take that into account — not just leaving that power with the police, but maybe giving the property owner the ability to say, ‘We don't want you to be on our space or the public space in front of our business,’” Swan said.

In its current language, the ordinance allows for a police officer to first instruct a person to disperse from private property. They would be found guilty of loitering if, after being given a reasonable opportunity to move and comply with the law, they have still not moved.

But residents like Winifred Wright, who conducts outreach with unhoused communities, offered a different perspective. She said when the city disperses camps and moves unhoused people, it becomes more difficult for outreach workers to find and connect them with shelter and other services.

“If we're going to address houselessness in the long term, we need a stable and semi-permanent spot for people to be so that outreach can find them regularly, and we can continue to offer services and get the ball rolling for each of those individuals,” Wright said.

LaDonna Cartwright questioned the effectiveness of arresting an unhoused person for loitering.

“These are human beings that we are dealing with,” she said. “And they are not getting the help that they need. So why would we arrest them and put them in jail?”

A spokesperson for the city told KCUR the goal is never to arrest houseless residents.

Ester Holzendorf of the Chestnut Resource Center said their number one concern in solving homelessness is the lack of roofs and permanent shelter. She asked if the ordinance will create more problems than it will solve.

“Moving them or telling them they've got to move on or be arrested, and they don't have any place to go, that's not really solving the problem,” she said.

Parks-Shaw requested the committee to hold the ordinance for one week to give the city’s legal department time to look over the language.

Protesters at the "We Shall Not Be Moved" rally on the south lawn of Kansas City city hall listen to speeches Thursday afternoon decrying the potential sweep of the homeless encampment there.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Protesters at the "We Shall Not Be Moved" rally on the south lawn of Kansas City city hall listen to speeches Thursday afternoon decrying the potential sweep of the homeless encampment there.

Meeting basic hygiene needs

City officials are also looking for additional resources to provide hygiene facilities. A few shelters in Kansas City provide showers and bathrooms for unhoused people, like at the Hope Faith Campus east of downtown. But trying to access the showers can mean waiting in line for hours, Wright said.

“So hygiene is of the utmost importance, especially given that we've been in a pandemic for the past couple years,” she said. “People wanna feel clean. It helps them feel better.”

Stephen Bell is another Kansas City resident who voiced support for the initiative. Bell has experienced homelessness himself, and attested to the difficulties of finding a place to shower.

“Please put some bathrooms, maybe some shower facilities or something out there for folks to get out there and feel like a human being,” Bell said.

City council members will continue discussions on this measure next week.

Update on pallet shelter project

A resolution to establish a pallet shelter community at the Municipal Farm — city-owned property located in the Eastwood Hills neighborhood south of the Royals and Chiefs stadium complexes — was met with pushback from Eastwood Hills residents.

The idea to build a village of tiny homes stalled last year after concerns from neighborhood groups and city officials.

Testifying to the committee, residents said they did not want the pallet shelter located near their neighborhood.

Aaron Walker, an Eastwood Hills resident, said the pallet shelters should instead be located in a more urban area of the city.

“This location you guys are thinking about putting it at is densely populated with woods,” he said. “It's a mile from any local bus stop. It's a mile from any local store to get chips, soda, anything they need. I believe this location is not good for the community.”

Willie Jones said that Eastwood Hills already deals with illegal dumping and vandalism — issues that he said would get worse if the pallet shelter were built.

“If the homeless people were to move in, there's a big concern for us about their safety as well,” Jones said. “We just want there to be a more in-depth study done.”

A resolution directing City Manager Brian Platt to collaborate with Kansas City’s LGBTQ Commission to create a plan addressing the housing and shelter needs for members of the LGBTQ community who are experiencing homelessness passed out of committee Wednesday.

Updated: April 1, 2022 at 4:01 PM CDT
This story was updated with comment from a spokesperson for Kansas City, Missouri.
As KCUR’s Missouri politics and government reporter, it’s my job to show how government touches every aspect of our lives. I break down political jargon so people can easily understand policies and how it affects them. My work is people-forward and centered on civic engagement and democracy. I hold political leaders and public officials accountable for the decisions they make and their impact on our communities. Follow me on Twitter @celisa_mia or email me at celisa@kcur.org.
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