A member of the homeless community in south KC displays or "flies" his cardboard sign at the entrance of a shopping center. Photo by Shana Siren Kempton

Unhoused in south Kansas City: Human behind the sign

“I didn’t start out living this way by choice but it’s really hard to kind of grasp the concept of going back to a normal life.”

By Shana Siren Kempton

“Cold, hungry, homeless…please help.” Night and day, and in sunshine, rain or snow, we notice the cardboard signs but rarely look at the faces, know the names, and hear the stories of the people behind the pleas for help. Who is holding that ragged sign? What is their story?

According to the Greater Kansas City Coalition to End Homelessness, there are 1,798 unhoused individuals in Kansas City on any given night. 

I walked, sat and stood with a few members of the tight-knit unhoused community in south Kansas City to look beyond the signs and hear their voices, even their laughter. Jeremy, Stephen, Rob and Clint are their names. Here are some of their stories:


(We sit inside a fast-food restaurant on a chilly December evening.)

Jeremy’s laugh is infectious. His eyes twinkle behind the black-rimmed glasses that were a gift from Jocelyn, a woman who frequently checks on him and takes care of some of his basic needs. His smile is constant, and when offered a meal, he sheepishly asks if he can get an Oreo Fudge McFlurry. Jeremy is 32 years old and opens up easily.

“I didn’t start out living this way by choice but it’s really hard to kind of grasp the concept of going back to a normal life,” says Jeremy. “This place – it’s hard but it’s simple.”  

He didn’t plan to last more than a year, but in February it will be three years since Jeremy started living outdoors. “For my one year anniversary, homeless, I woke up to my tent surrounded in flames,” remembers Jeremy. He lost his wallet and all identification, making it a challenge to work and to apply for assistance.

He didn’t grow up in stable conditions and confesses that he eats better now than he did as a youth. “I really like the care packages we get with fruit snacks and Slim Jims,” says Jeremy. “We’re not great at taking care of ourselves and it’s easy to lose what we get. I’m always happy when I get a wash rag.”

Jeremy likes being part of a smaller community. “All the homeless people out here are almost like family,” he says. “We all talk to each other and help each other out.”

“I kind of got blessed this year because I got to reconnect with my family,” says Jeremy. “They’re not my family by blood but they’re my chosen family, and I’ve been going to their house for almost every holiday since I was nine.” Jeremy will spend Christmas day with them.

An open newspaper article provides clues for some who escaped their home. Photo by Shana Siren Kempton



(Stephen and I walk briskly across a parking lot as he searches for his mother who lives in a secluded encampment in the woods. Everyone I meet knows Stephen and his mother and each time I’ve visited the area, I see Stephen out looking for his mother.)

“I’m not here just by choice,” says Stephen. “I’m here to see my mom.”

Stephen is the oldest of eight siblings, all of whom were transferred into foster care. He is now in his early twenties.

“I’m the black sheep in my family,” says Stephen. “Nobody likes me but I’m the only one that came back to find my mom.” Stephen has been running a long time, always searching for his mother. “Every time I ran away, I ran back to my mom,” he says. “I’ve been here since I was a baby.”

Stephen won’t get a job because of warrants out for his arrest. 

Stephen insists, “I’m not homeless – just checking on my mom.” 


(Rob joins me and Jeremy at a booth and just starts talking.)

“It’s miserable out here,” says Rob, who was run over by a car last year, suffering trauma to his head and limbs. He shows me the scars. Rob names the many human losses he has experienced over the years.

Rob wants to make it to Florida to see his son and grandkids for Christmas.

“This is a different world. I’m tired of it. I’m burned out.”


 (I meet Clint near the intersection as he and Jeremy fly their signs in the dark before they head to their tents.)

Clint has experienced homelessness for a total of 12 years. The message on his sign says, “God Bless.”

Clint says, “Because of what I’d been through I found myself fighting with God every day. I felt like I was being tested more than Job was in the Bible, but I see the work of God every time somebody helps me out in a big way or even in a small way.”

A few years ago, Clint discovered the body of a buddy who froze to death. The winter is brutal for those without shelter. Some people use propane heaters to stay warm at night and a lot of layers of clothing. Survival is the goal each day.

Jeremy and Clint both profess a belief in God and pray daily. Jeremy confesses, “I actually didn’t believe in God until I became homeless. Now I pray every day, every time I step foot on a median…every time. God answers prayers.”


2 thoughts on “Unhoused in south Kansas City: Human behind the sign

  1. First off, I like the way they keep their homeless camps spotless. They really do care about their quality of life. We need to keep giving them fruit snacks and slim jims for another 12 years. They will turn their lives around.

    When a homeless camp was removed from a RR right of way in KC a month or so ago about 50 homeless were removed from the camp and their shit was thrown in the trash. There was a homeless advocate there to offer services. Of the 50 homeless that were offered help ZERO took advantage of it.

    Many local news outlets covered the sweep, but only one mentioned the fact help was offered, but no one took advantage of it. With all of the media bias these days the truth is elusive.

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