By Max Goodwin
A business owner at Watts Mill Plaza on 103rd street recently emailed city leaders about the constant issues with homelessness they had seen in the area. It wasn’t the first time that business owners at Watts Mill had complained of the tent encampments around that area.
This time the complaint was that homeless people were sleeping on the bench in front of the business, harassing staff and customers at night, and refusing to leave the property. The business owner tried to get the Kansas City Police Department involved but was told there was nothing they could do.
This particular business owner just wanted the unhoused away from his property, seeing them as a nuisance. But don’t expect complaints of a homeless encampment to result in officers forcibly clearing the area, that’s not how the situation is handled, said City Manager Brian Platt.
It’s outreach groups or social workers that first respond to assess what services people need and what options they have for housing. It can take a few weeks to secure the right housing situation for people.
“It’s not like we show up with a bunch of police cars saying you’ve got to go by tonight,” Platt said. “We’re trying to balance being respectful and giving people the space they need to move and being humane. People are people.”
On January 10, Platt and city council members went to Indian Creek at 103rd street and identified encampments themselves during a walking tour. Outreach groups are now in the process of helping those individuals there find shelter.
It’s not as simple as finding a shelter with an available bed and putting the person on a bus. There are various reasons a person might prefer to stay in a tent, and the city is listening to their needs and trying to meet them, and the unhoused community is gaining trust in the city because of the steps they’ve seen taken recently.
There are often overlooked factors that keep people from seeking a bed in a shelter, or going to a job, that aren’t obvious to people who have never lived without a home. One of those factors is having no place to put the belongings they have.
“We all have so much stuff,” said Deanna Valencia who is houseless. “They don’t want to leave their stuff, because what they have is stuff from their ancestors or stuff that they recently received so I mean it’s hard for them to leave their tents.”
The city will now keep that stuff safe for them with a city program called Heart Cart personal storage.
The city is providing 70 personal storage carts for people to use and Downtown Council has provided a secure facility to keep all of the personal belongings. In a news release, the city said the hope is that more people will seek shelter during extreme weather if they know their personal belongings will be protected.
The Heart Cart is the most recent example of how in the past year, the Kansas City Council and Mayor Quinton Lucas have bolstered the city’s efforts to aid the homeless and create sufficient affordable housing in Kansas City.
On New Year’s Day the first winter storm of the season rolled into Kansas City, plunging temperatures into single digits and wind chills below zero, cold enough to cause hypothermia, warned the National Weather Service.
The city initiated its extreme weather plan to support the unhoused and opened three community centers to the public to serve as warming centers in addition to local homeless shelters, all in the downtown or midtown area.
Shelters have limited bed space that can fill up quickly. To find which had beds available, it required calling each of them. It was terribly inefficient, discovered 5th District Councilwoman Ryana Parks-Shaw, when she tried to help people find shelter herself.
“I learned, wow, we have to come up with a better way to make it easier for an individual to get shelter if they need it,” Parks-Shaw said.
The local shelter providers agreed there needed to be a central database to show where beds were available. The city partnered with the shelters to implement a new online dashboard to report a daily count of beds available at each shelter this winter.
Rachel Casey, executive director of the Community Assistance Council, has used the shelter bed dashboard to help people in need find shelter now that it’s been up and running for more than a month, but one major hurdle is that there is no shelter in south Kansas City.
“CAC is the frontline of homelessness prevention down south,” Casey said.
When people do show up at CAC with no place to stay for the night, all the shelters they can be directed to are a significant car or bus ride away.
“We can use that as a tool, just as it’s intended, and say oh, well, I see here City Union Mission has space available,” Casey said of the shelter bed dashboard, “but the challenge is if we’re working with somebody down here, how do they get there?”
As part of its extreme weather plan, the city offers free bus rides to shelters on cold days through RideKC.
Casey said that CAC would like to develop more comprehensive programs to help those who are already homeless, but most of what they currently do is homelessness prevention. CAC distributes food, helps clients find jobs and get critical documents like a driver’s license or Social Security card that they often need to find jobs.
Catholic Charities began operating its new Serve & Lift Center at 8001 Longview Rd. in the Hickman Mills area this month and has a long-term goal to provide housing for low-income seniors and disabled persons.
The most important tool that organizations like the CAC have had available to keep people from going homeless during the pandemic has been emergency rental and utility assistance funding from the federal government.
CAC distributed roughly $500,000 in emergency rent and utility assistance earlier this year. Kansas City and Jackson County have been reallocated $50 million in emergency assistance funding that was unspent. The city is receiving $25 million and Jackson County is receiving $25 million.
“We’re going to be receiving $1.1 million of that,” Casey said, “which is a huge thing for an agency our size.”
Before Catholic Charities moved into Hickman Mills, CAC was the only social services nonprofit in south Kansas City. This large area of the city has much less resources for those facing homelessness than downtown, and Casey said there’s a significant need.
CAC has grown a lot in recent years because of the need for help in the area. Still, Casey said she sees gaps in what they are able to do for people and it has only increased throughout the pandemic.
“With Catholic Charities moving down here, they’ll be able to address some of that, but the need down here is so great,” Casey said. “CAC has grown a lot in the last two, three years, but the need really is here to grow and grow and to try to address the needs.”
There are nearly 1,800 people on the streets of Kansas City on a given night estimated by The Greater Kansas City Coalition to End Homelessness. It’s clear from tents visible in some south Kansas City wooded areas that some who are without shelter are living in this part of the city.
Casey points out that there are more than just those in the shelters and on the streets that face a struggle with housing. In the primary zip codes that CAC services (64132, 64134, 64137, 64138) about 48 percent of residents are renters and about 44 percent of them pay more than 30 percent of their income to rent.
CAC currently receives about 400 calls each week for emergency rent and utility assistance.