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Snow, icy conditions and bone-chilling temperatures present significant risks to people who are unhoused or otherwise lack stable shelter — a growing concern as Kansas City inches closer to winter.
Without enough capacity at local shelters to help the increasing numbers of unhoused people, city officials are exploring a winter plan to protect them. This comes after last year’s brutal winter, when an unhoused man — Scott “Sixx” Eicke — died in the cold not far from downtown. His death prompted the city to open Bartle Hall as an overnight warming shelter.
But Bartle Hall won’t be available for that purpose this winter. Instead, the city, in partnership with nonprofits and social service groups, is exploring solutions that include expanding capacity at shelters, building pallet homes and improving coordination among city services and resources in the community.
But local nonprofits, service providers and advocates for the unhoused are already seeing an increase in unhoused residents — and not enough capacity to shelter them. In their eyes, the city’s plans are a start, but a slow one. Advocates fear that the demand for shelter and services is outpacing the city’s ability to respond effectively.
“It’s kind of like the tide,” said Jodi Mathews, director of marketing and development at Reconciliation Services, a social service organization in Kansas City. “The tidal wave came and the waves are still really high — it takes a long time for things to slow down.”
The most recent data on the unhoused population, gathered in January by the Greater Kansas City Coalition to End Homeless, shows there were 1,425 unhoused people in the Kansas City area — a slight decrease from 2020.
Despite this, Patricia Hernandez, operations coordinator for the Greater Kansas City Coalition to End Homelessness, said her group is still seeing an increased number of unhoused people recently. She doesn’t think the city has enough capacity to meet their needs.
Many households are still reeling from the impacts of the pandemic: job losses, sickness and evictions after falling behind on rent.
“We’re highly concerned that over the next year, and the next two years — a few years, probably — that we are going to see a continued increase in street homelessness, because of the overall housing issues,” said Stephanie Boyer, executive director of reStart, which provides services for unhoused people.
In the absence of a comprehensive plan and adequate resources to provide shelter for people who have lost their homes, places like Reconciliation Services and reStart, and even Kansas City Public Library branches, become points of entry for unhoused people looking for shelter and vital assistance.
“For individuals who are homeless, a lot of times their problems are that they’ve been victims of theft, and they no longer have telephones,” said Beth Hill, community resources specialist at the Kansas City Public Library. “They’ve lost telephones, they’ve lost birth certificates, all their vital IDs. And so they have to start all over again.”
Kansas City’s winter emergency plan
In October, the city announced its winter plans for unhoused people. Officials are focusing on three main strategies: improving collaboration among existing shelters, service providers and the city; creating overflow centers during extreme weather or emergencies; and funding three projects that offer long-term supportive housing.
The city’s new emergency winter plans will be activated when the daytime high temperature is below 32 degrees or when the nighttime high is lower than 20 degrees. The city’s Emergency Operations Center will then open a hotline, and buses will transport people to warming shelters or warming buses. When shelters are full, the city will open two overflow, overnight shelters.
With pandemic capacity restrictions no longer in place, officials hope to make better use of existing resources. City Manager Brian Platt said the overflow shelters would be community centers used in previous years, like the Garrison Community Center in the Columbus Park neighborhood.
“It depends on how many people are in need, it depends on the location of the need, and it depends on what other resources are available at the time,” Platt said.
But Boyer at reStart said emergency plans based on temperatures can be confusing for unhoused people. She said the city should focus on more continuous housing, particularly during the coldest months of the year.
“That really just doesn’t make any sense from a financial standpoint or resources standpoint, from time and energy of people, but also to the people that are in need,” Boyer said. “It’s confusing, and I think — across our entire homeless service system — everything is way too confusing for folks.”
Kansas City’s collaboration with shelters will include a dashboard on the city’s website that shows the number of beds available on a daily basis.
Boyer said the Houseless Task Force has been working on a list of beds available at shelters across the city, and the shelters’ requirements for admission.
The Houseless Task Force was created this year to seek solutions involving both short- and long-term housing. Members include social service providers, city staffers and council members. A representative of the Kansas City Homeless Union — created earlier this year to demand action from city officials — was also part of the task force, but left in October, citing a lack of action.
Kansas City Councilwoman Ryana Parks-Shaw, chair of the Houseless Task Force, said the group is working on a community needs assessment. What’s different in the city’s strategy this year, Parks-Shaw said, is the emphasis on collaboration across the region.
“We are working on that right now for those experiencing homelessness, with the intention of utilizing that data and information for a strategic plan, looking at short-term, intermediate and long-term goals, and how to address concerns and come up with some sustainable solutions,” she said.
Officials recognized that some people do not want to stay in shelters and prefer encampments and other outdoor places, Parks-Shaw said. The city is collaborating with local organizations to conduct outreach and make sure those remaining outside have access to cold-weather supplies like blankets.
What ordinances are being considered to combat homelessness?
Kansas City officials proposed several ordinances in late October and early November aimed at helping the unhoused population.
One ordinance would establish a $400,000 contract with Lotus Care House, a social service provider, to offer transitional housing for 100 people, along with case management and employment services.
Platt said that plan would involve purchasing a hotel and creating a transitional housing center focusing on vulnerable populations, like single mothers, seniors and members of the LGBTQ+ community.
The ordinance was referred to the City Council’s special committee on housing policy earlier this month but has yet to be passed by the full City Council.
An ordinance that did pass provides $300,000 in a contract with Amethyst Place, a social service provider for families and children, to create 34 shelter units for single mothers and children who are unhoused or have extremely low incomes.
A third ordinance, also passed by City Council, provides $650,000 from the city’s general fund to the Department of Housing and Community Development to use in contracts with other agencies on winter plans for unhoused people. The ordinance calls for reports every 30 days to the council.
The council also passed a resolution directing Platt to coordinate with the Houseless Task Force to create standard operating procedures for dealing with encampments and people staying on public property in Kansas City. The city has garnered criticism this year for conducting camp sweeps and forcing out unhoused people who were staying on the front lawn of City Hall and at a camp in Westport.
What’s the long-term plan?
In addition to winter emergency plans, Kansas City is considering several long-term strategies to address housing insecurity and instability.
So far this year, the city has approved an ordinance to use $12.5 million of American Rescue Plan Act funds for the creation of a Housing Trust Fund to support the preservation and building of affordable housing.
Platt said the goal is to provide 10,000 additional affordable units over the next five years to expand the supply of permanent, supportive housing for low-income and unhoused people.
“That means not just temporary measures but building more affordable housing, building more types of housing that are accessible for those of the lowest income and doing so in all neighborhoods of the city,” Platt said.
But some plans are stalled in legislative purgatory. A proposed ordinance to fund the creation of small, pallet-style homes with an organization known as Verge was introduced in late June and is still sitting in the Finance, Governance and Public Safety Committee. That ordinance would create 200 temporary shelter beds and would cost $1.7 million.
Service providers remain concerned that the city is not doing enough or moving fast enough to increase access to stable shelter.
Mathews at Reconciliation Services said it’s important for the city to simultaneously work on long-term and short-term solutions to both keep people housed and meet the needs of those who aren’t.
“Working on the long-term issues like housing affordability … is the only way we’re going to move beyond putting people on buses to keep them warm through the winter,” she said.
Hill at the Kansas City Public Library said a simple tool like a public dashboard of available beds should’ve been created years ago.
“We need that all the time,” she said. “Because every night, there’s people that can’t find a place. And if we had that kind of information, then, yeah … somebody could get a room and we could keep moving on to the next person. That’s wonderful.”
Hernandez at the Greater Kansas City Coalition to End Homelessness said the city should connect more with people who are unhoused and ask them to propose solutions.
“Can we do more?” she said. “Can we do better? Absolutely.”