Organizations help homeless balance cold, COVID-19 as 1st winter storm arrives

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Posted at 10:09 PM, Dec 31, 2020
and last updated 2020-12-31 23:45:58-05

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — With a winter storm forecast to usher Kansas City into 2021, organizations that help people experiencing homelessness are mobilizing and hoping for better days in the new year in battling increasing needs on multiple fronts.

"COVID is a danger, but the cold is also a danger," Eric Burger, executive director of Shelter KC, said. "People who have depression from mental health is a danger. All of these things, we're trying to deal with simultaneously."

Shelter KC is preparing to handle the increased need that comes with a winter storm in the forecast, a godsend for many people without a permanent residence.

"It's helped me dramatically," Shelter KC resident Mark Fowler said. "If not, I'd be freezing my butt off outside."

COVID-19 has created some extra challenges for Burger's team as well as other agencies that work to address homelessness.

"On one hand, we're trying to have more social distancing, which we've actually reduced numbers of beds and trying to create more space," Burger said. "Then, on the other hand, (we're) making sure no one is in an endangered situation."

Before the pandemic, Shelter KC would pack as many as 50 people in an overflow room if the need was great.

Now, the limit is 15 people, which has forced Shelter KC to get creative about using other rooms to give people a place to sleep.

Extra planning must go into spacing and proper sanitation. If it's not possible, the staff gets on the phone with another shelter to check for an open bed.

"We've kind of changed how we do our check-in so we know where our beds are at an earlier time, so our ability to communicate with City Union, ReStart, and even some of these overflow cold weather shelters has increased," Burger said.

Shelter KC still needs more donations of hats, gloves, warm clothes and hygiene products to respond to the influx.

Hope Faith Ministries, a homeless assistance campus, is also working on ways to expand services.

"We started to see people who were those one-paycheck-away people knocking on our door," Jaysen Van Sickle, executive director of Hope Faith, said. "What happens when that butterfly effect really ripples and hits us in the end?"

Hope Faith opened up a "village" outside made up of tents at the start of the pandemic to continue serving a record number of people. Now, those tents are heated.

Hope Faith is about to launch a new hotline that they hope will serve as a central location for people who are on the verge of homelessness.

A newly created team of people will answer the phones and help connect them with services. Even people who've never set foot in Hope Faith needing a shower, a mailing address or a meal may find assistance as a result.

"How can I help those people to keep the lights on, keep heat on and providing more emergency relief by way of funding or getting them connected to the right agencies?" Van Sickle said.

The pandemic changed operations but it also shined a light on the true need in Kansas City. These organizations hope the community will continue its support.