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As Kansas City gets deadly cold, these unhoused ‘survivalists’ prefer to sleep outside

Some Kansas Citians weather deadly cold nights in homeless camps like this one on Brush Creek.
Frank Morris
Some Kansas Citians weather deadly cold nights in homeless camps like this one on Brush Creek.

Some Kansas Citians will sleep out in the bitter freezing wind tonight. They were out there last night, too. Finding a warm bed isn’t necessarily the problem. They know how to survive in the worst of the Kansas City winter, and they don’t like homeless shelters.

“We don't consider ourselves homeless,” said Patrick Thompson, a native of Arkansas who’s been living on the streets of Kansas City for a year. “We consider ourselves survivalist.”

Deep wrinkles carve Thompson’s otherwise youthful, bearded face. He’s not a prepper or a militia-type survivalist — his specialty is living on his wits, with help from a constellation of homeless service providers and hard-learned skills. He’s teamed up with Kansas City native Marvin Gaddy, who sits next to his backpack and treasured sleeping bag, sporting a little grey hair and a lot of layers.

“I got three pair of jeans on. One, two, oh, there's the other one,” Gaddy said, counting the cuff at his ankle. “It keeps me comfortable. And I got Long Johns on too. So, just surviving.”

By night, Gaddy and Thompson set up camp under a bridge crossing Brush Creek. In weather like this weekend's, with high temperatures in the single digits and wind chills as low as 40 below zero, they work hard to stay warm.

“We take a little walk before we settle down to get our bodies warmed up, so when we get in our sleeping bag, we're warm,” said Gaddy. “We got a blanket, we lay down and then we get inside our sleeping bag and, and just hunker down man. And don't come out until the sun come back up.”

Marvin Gaddy weathers nights in the cold, but dreams of warmer weather overseas
Frank Morris
Marvin Gaddy weathers nights in the cold, but dreams of warmer weather overseas.

When the sun comes up, they have to move. Police and park rangers will run them off and possibly take the extra clothes, blankets and sleeping bags if they stay put under the bridge. Normally they head for the Plaza branch of the Kansas City Public Library, but that’s just one of the amenities they use.

The library publishes what it calls a “Street Sheet” with dozens of places to get food, clothing, bedding, legal help, mental help and health care. Thompson and Gaddy are conversant with most of the organizations, know their schedules, their offerings and their quirks.

“I’ll tell you one thing about Kansas City,” said Thompson. “If you go hungry or if you starve in Kansas City you are just lazy, you're absolutely lazy. Because there's so many places that want to feed you.”

There are also more than a dozen area agencies and non-profits offering warmth and shelter, such as the City Union Mission and Shelter KC, tend to surge capacity when killer weather kicks in.

A lot of those shelters are full now. Some aren’t answering the phone.

Some homeless people would rather take their chances with freezing, anyway.

“I've been to shelters, but they're restrictive. All they do is restrict,” said a Kansas City man who identified himself as Dino McQueen. “I think it's called cattle wrangling. I feel like they'll lead you to the slaughter.”

 “I’ve been in jail,” said Thompson. “And jail is actually better than homeless shelters.”

Thompson said that, in his experience, jail was safer, because the other people staying there are under surveillance and face mounting punishment if they get aggressive.

A frequent complaint about homeless shelters is that they lump a diverse and often troubled group of people together.

"They put everybody into a shelter together and you got people that's walking around all night because they're on drugs,” said Gaddy. “You got mentally ill people just talking to themselves all night, you know? And it's hard to rest.”

That’s why Gaddy, Thompson and McQueen are braving these harsh winter nights outside.

But Gaddy has a dream. This year he turns 65. A railroad pension will kick in, and Gaddy plans to use that money to buy a one-way ticket to the Philippines. He met a woman there when he was traveling years ago, and said she wants to take care of him. He said his pension will stretch a lot farther in the Philippines, and that this time next year his days of wearing three pairs of jeans and long johns will all be over.

“The coldest it gets is 73 over there,” Gaddy said, smiling broadly. “And I’ll take that any time.”

I’ve been at KCUR almost 30 years, working partly for NPR and splitting my time between local and national reporting. I work to bring extra attention to people in the Midwest, my home state of Kansas and of course Kansas City. What I love about this job is having a license to talk to interesting people and then crafting radio stories around their voices. It’s a big responsibility to uphold the truth of those stories while condensing them for lots of other people listening to the radio, and I take it seriously. Email me at frank@kcur.org or find me on Twitter @FrankNewsman.
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