Standing on the I-70 exit ramp at Independence Avenue on a cool fall morning is a thin guy, possibly in his late 30s or early 40s, his face weathered by the sun. He’s standing next to a backpack and holding a cardboard sign that says “anything helps.”
Further south, on the western edge of the Country Club Plaza a man in his 50’s wearing a tie-dye shirt carries a sign that says, “Broke as F---.”
The day before, at the same spot on Madison and 47th street, a young woman wearing a red tank top stood, watching cars pass from the median. Her sign says she needs help feeding her young children.
Kansas City Police say complaints to 311 about panhandling have spiked in the last year. And many Kansas City residents are concerned that panhandling is a growing problem.
So Kansas City officials are considering banning panhandling on medians and highway ramps. The proposed ordinance, in its original form, says people can’t be in an intersection for longer than it takes to cross the street but doesn’t actually mention panhandling.
That is by design. The U.S. Supreme Court, on two occasions, has ruled that cities can’t outlaw panhandling.
But the measure has sparked debate about a wide array of underlying issues, including increasing homelessness across the metro.
Neighbors struggle to keep up with homeless camps in northeast Kansas City
Ken and Deborah Richardson say a growing homeless population is threatening their beloved historic northeast neighborhood.
Walking down Gladstone Boulevard just off Independence Avenue on a warm autumn morning, Ken Richardson says his neighborhood has come a long way since they moved from the Northland eight years ago.
“This was a drug house was raided just on a continual basis about five years ago. And you can look at it now. I mean, it's just, it's a beautiful home,” Richardson says. He says people are finally beginning to re-invest in the neighborhood.
“This place has so much history and it's so beautiful. You hate to see it go away.”
Richardson says he often sees people rolling shopping carts down the sidewalk, or making off with patio furniture.
Just a few blocks away, The Colonnade separates the houses from hundreds of acres of wooded parkland surrounding Cliff Drive. That is where Richardson says camps of homeless people spend their nights.
“You figure this was cleaned last Sunday morning,” Richardson says. He points to several trailheads just beyond the stately rows of columns.
“You can see literally where people camp here overnight. You'll see clothing. You'll see campfires. We're always cleaning this.”
Richardson says the people who live in the woods at night are the same ones out panhandling during the day and stealing his neighbors’ patio furniture. He thinks the ordinance would help clear them out.
Out of sight, out of mind
Opponents of the measure argue the proposal wouldn’t stop panhandling from happening — it would just move it somewhere else.
Austin Strassle works at Truman Medical Center, where he helps homeless people find housing and mental health services.
“I don't think that it's going to stop panhandling. Having worked with this population for a while now. I can tell you that they are a very persistent bunch,” Strassle says.
He acknowledges that homelessness across the metro is increasing. According to the latest point in time count, homelessness in Wyandotte and Johnson counties increased 7.6 percent over the previous year. The point in time is a federally mandated count of all the people experiencing homelessness in a community on a single night.
Strassle, who is running for city council next year, says his clients have often already had negative interactions with police.
He worries that if people get penalties like fines or even jail time for panhandling, that will just compound all the other issues they’re already dealing with.
“That sort of process only leads to additional trauma for folks, which makes it that much harder for them to be able to get to a place where they're not needing to go to the median and panhandle,” Strassle says.
A man standing along Independence Avenue, who asked not to be photographed or identified, says if panhandling were banned, he might turn to other crime instead.
Strassle says the organizations providing services to Kansas City’s homeless population are already stretched thin.
“I don't think people realize that there are not nearly as many services out there as people think there are. And the services that are out there are so overloaded with with folks who need help that we just can't provide nearly as much as we want to,” Strassle says.
Between the legal issues and an existing — but difficult to enforce — ordinance on aggressive panhandling, Councilwoman Jolie Justus initially wanted to vote the whole measure down.
“The issues that people were bringing up relating to crime relating to trash, most of those issues, first of all, we already have ordinances on the books to address those. And second, I don't think banning panhandling is going to solve those problems,” Justus says.
Justus notes that the ordinance has seven sponsors — that’s enough for it to pass as written. So she wants to take the current language, which is about pedestrian safety, and add in additional pedestrian safety measures.
“Even looking at how we decide where crosswalks go and how we decide what across walk looks like and where a stop sign can go. If we can address that in this (ordinance) why not? Let's give it a shot,” Justus says.
A committee will take up the measure Thursday morning at City Hall.
Lisa Rodriguez is a reporter and the afternoon newscaster for KCUR 89.3. Follow her on Twitter @larodrig.