What’s Kansas City going to do about the homeless? an interview with Ryana Parks-Shaw

“Until this council, honestly, I don’t believe that as much attention has been given to homelessness.”

By Max Goodwin

 Kansas City Council unanimously approved a resolution for a strategic plan to end homelessness in the city sponsored by 5th District Councilwoman Ryana Parks Shaw. 

The resolution establishes a policy focus for the Housing and Community Development Department that was established last June, and Parks-Shaw says it is also the basis for several federal grant applications the city is applying for this month to address homelessness. The plan within the resolution is called “Zero KC” and is based on a national model called “Built for Zero.”

“The framework of this plan is going to support our federal applications,” Parks-Shaw said. 

She describes it as a collaborative plan between the city of Kansas City and the Greater Kansas City Coalition to End Homelessness, the lead agency of Housing and Urban Development in Jackson County. The HUD agency brings in millions of dollars annually, for the Kansas City area. 

Some action steps in the plan are already taking shape. Clean Up KC is a program that contracts jobs out to homeless provider organizations like Hope Faith and Creative Innovative to pay homeless people a living wage to work on beautification efforts for the city. 

The Inanity of the Homeless Situation. On October 8th, volunteers cleaned up trash left by homeless campers along Indian Creek. As they left, a well-meaning Christian group from Gardner, Kansas, (in the background) arrived with provisions for the homeless at 103rd and Wornall. One homeless man declined food and prayers and instead took the red-spoked wheelchair from the trash pile and headed to the I-435 exit ramp to panhandle.  Photo by Kathy Feist

Clean Up KC is overseen by the Public Works Department. There’s a benefit for the people who receive a job from the program and for the city, which has struggled to fully employ its departments. Parks-Shaw notes that the Public Works Department is about 180 staff members short of its expected employment.

“The beauty of this program is that it’s kind of a win-win for both parties,” Parks-Shaw said. “We’ve seen staffing issues across the city. It’s helping us to be able to meet the needs of the community while also giving an opportunity for a well-paying job, a fair wage, to those homeless individuals.”

Parks-Shaw led the Homelessness Task Force which has now been disbanded and replaced with a permanent commission to advise the city council on how to address homelessness. The City hired its first Homelessness Prevention Coordinator, Josh Henges, early this year. 

The approval of the plan designates City Manager Brian Platt to report back to City Council within 90 days with recommendations for the implementation of the plan.

The resolution comes within the context of local governments doing more to address homelessness than before. Federal and state government has mostly taken responsibility in the past for efforts to prevent homelessness but local governments are now doing more of the work with the help of federal funding.

Ryana Parks-Shaw

“Until this council, honestly, I don’t believe that as much attention has been given to homelessness,” Parks-Shaw said.

Before the Homelessness Task Force was disbanded it implemented ideas like an online shelter bed dashboard that showed a real-time look at where beds were available at shelters. Still they’ve seen the number of people in the shelters decrease while people sleeping unsheltered on the street or in cars has increased.

That’s why the resolution focuses on a need for more low barrier shelters, places where people can sleep without as many hoops to jump through. One example in the plan is a parking lot that could be used as a safe place to park and sleep in a vehicle overnight or during the day. 

A person who works overnight could use it as a place to sleep during the day or other reasons that might complicate sleeping in a shelter for some dealing with homelessness. Other low-barrier shelters could accommodate people without requiring sobriety as shelters do. 

Some ideas that city council has looked at in addressing homelessness have received push back and questions from the community.

A plan to convert a hotel on Blue Ridge Blvd. into long term living for homeless individuals received complaints at a community listening session about the idea in June. That hotel conversion is still being considered but has not progressed since the last community meeting. The City is still waiting for an appraisal of the hotel property before moving forward.

Parks-Shaw says she understands the questions and concerns about new ideas that may change people’s lives or their neighborhoods. 

“That’s why part of this strategic plan addresses a communication strategy,” Parks-Shaw said. “One of the key components of our priority list is to make sure that we engage the neighborhood and businesses at the table to help us develop the strategies that we’re working to implement.” 

So far, after three listening sessions about the “Zero KC” plan, including one at KCPD’s South Patrol Station, there have been a lot more questions than complaints. 

1 thought on “What’s Kansas City going to do about the homeless? an interview with Ryana Parks-Shaw

  1. The element missing in these programs is the willingness of the target population to participate. There are probably many reasons and motivations at work, but there seems to be a large percentage who just do not want to be involved in it. Because they can be seen as a public nuisance, from many perspectives, the law should allow the majority to compel those living outside the mainstream to stop imposing on the mainstream. The rights they have do not supercede the rights that the rest have, and providing this buffer is a good start at a compromise.

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