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Services for unhoused people in Kansas City are '10 years behind where we need to be'

Two men sit outdoors near a camping tent. Behind them are other tents near a wooded area.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
A man relaxes outside his tent in a camp near the corner of The Paseo and Independence Avenue.

As the Kansas City Council prepares a plan to address homelessness and keep unhoused people safe during the winter months, advocates worry a solution isn’t coming fast enough.

As Kansas City prepares for winter, advocates and city representatives question how prepared it is to help the unhoused population.

Josh Henges, Kansas City’s homelessness prevention coordinator, says there aren’t enough amenities like low barrier shelters with minimal or no entry requirements.

“I would say we're probably 10 years behind where we need to be,” Henges said. "We've got the right people in the right positions, especially in leadership in the nonprofit community to get us up to speed and we can get there quick — but we've got to be competitive.”

Stephanie Boyer, CEO of reStart, the only homeless organization in the city that serves all unhoused populations, believes that the city is also behind others when it comes to caring for populations experiencing homelessness because it hasn’t made affordable housing for extremely low-income people a priority.

“I think there's a lot of great strategies that we can learn from a lot of communities,” said Boyer. “You have to come at it from a multi-pronged approach. Definitely seeing additional federal dollars come to communities, additional federal vouchers come, but we've yet to see the local dollars to housing.”

The Kansas City Council approved a ballot initiative that will be voted on in the Nov. 8 election. If approved, it will invest up to $50 million in housing creation and preservation.

It would be the largest single investment in affordable housing made by the city, and the funding would be used to leverage existing money in the Housing Trust Fund, federal funding as well as housing tax credits to create more housing.

But Boyer said that initiative won’t meet the greatest affordability need in the city. She said most of the rental assistance in the city goes to households that make 30% or less of the family median income in the area, and that the city’s priorities have to focus on where the greatest need is.

According to the U.S. Census American Community Survey, Kansas City had a deficit of more than 27,000 affordable and available housing units priced at 30% of the median income or less from 2016-2020.

“We're still talking a lot in that ballot initiative of funding housing at the 60% of area median income for households,” Boyer said. “And that is absolutely not where we see the greatest need — it’s in that 30% AMI. Those will be the families and children that we are continuing to see (go) from living in cars to now living in camps.”

The city council is set to unveil Zero KC, an initiative to end homelessness in Kansas City, on Thursday. The plan focuses on increasing street outreach presence and lower-barrier shelters and creating an extreme weather plan.

One aspect of the plan is increasing the affordable housing stock and strengthening the rehousing system to include temporary and long-term housing options.

ZeroKC aims to decrease public encampments by connecting people to social services, housing and healthcare instead of sweeping campsites. It also specifies emergency shelter has an intervention while awaiting permanent solutions.

Implementing this strategy is complicated by Missouri’s new lawmaking it a misdemeanor for people experiencing homelessness to sleep on state land. Under the law, the attorney general can sue local governments that don’t enforce laws on unauthorized public camping, sleeping or obstruction of sidewalks.

Henges is confident that if approved, the plan will meet the needs of the unhoused community before winter sets in.

“We've been working hard on this at (the houseless) task force,” Henges said. “The thing now is execution. The city, our partners, nonprofits, we've got to be committed to this plan. If we're committed and it's funded right, I assure you this will work.”

The plan is set to be introduced to the council Thursday during the business session. But Boyer is worried the plan won’t be finalized soon enough.

“We are in late September and we don't have a plan finalized yet,” she said. “I believe there's the goal to try to have the plan finalized by November 1. But we know in the Midwest, we're going from 100 degrees to a 64 (degree) day within a few days, and could quickly go to 30-degree nights very quickly.”

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