KANSAS CITY, Mo. — When the city cleared out two large camps where people experiencing homelessness were staying in April, it told the folks living there they could move into various hotels around Kansas City.
It was part of Mayor Quinton Lucas's proposal to provide 500 hotel rooms for those in need of a place to stay for 90 days.
"There wasn't a cavalry coming by any means, so that is how my team formed," Janessa Riehle, volunteer coordinator, said. "As you can imagine, the level of demand is tremendously high."
Over the last month, managing the 12 hotels — located in inner Kansas City, near KCI, near Worlds of Fun, and in south KCMO — has fallen mostly on volunteers.
The volunteers hope this can be a real turning point in the way the city addresses homelessness and homeless advocates in the community.
"They're helping me get my birth certificate, my social security card," said Brenda Thomas, who's been staying at the hotel for a month.
Thomas was living in a tent for a year after several years of being down on her luck. Thomas said her energy and her outlook on life has improved since arriving at one of the hotels.
Volunteers are helping Thomas and 400 other people staying at the hotels.
Riehle said she and her team put in 16-hour days every day as they coordinate food donations, transportation, and other essential services all out of pocket.
An umbrella agency, Lotus Care House, didn't start contracting with the city until two weeks ago.
"The goal is provide housing stabilization, income stabilization, provide a solution for folks so that they exit hotels into some sort of permanent housing," Alfredo Palacol said, executive director of Lotus Care House.
Lotus Care House came in to fill in the gaps and support Riehle and the volunteers.
But Riehle's team said they need more support from the city.
"We've all been on-call for five weeks straight, so we are demanding that the city pay us for what we've been doing," Riehle said. "We've made several proposals, we've made several edits to those proposals and we continuously hit a wall."
They are asking for a $30 hourly rate for the logistics coordinator and engagement coordinator positions, a $38 hourly rate for the coordinating director, a $21 hourly rate for a coordinating assistant, and a $16.50 hourly rate for six part-time volunteer lead positions for 25 hours a week.
Palacol said Lotus Care House has received some funding from the city for an initial payment to the hotels but the council has to approve all of it, which hasn't happened yet.
Late Tuesday afternoon, Palacol said they will pay Riehle's team for the five-week back-pay, which the city will need to reimburse.
Chris Hernandez, city spokesperson, said the city is working on the contract, which depends on the daily hotel room rate. He could not give a time frame of when the contract will be finished, which could include Riehle's team subcontracting under Lotus Care House.
Hernandez said the city is also continuing their work on a tiny home village.
"There's always going to be challenges, especially if you've never done it before. I think that the mindset and the focus on the people is absolutely correct, and right that the city is working toward that," Palacol said.
Lotus Care House brought in agencies such as ReDiscover, KC Care Health clinic, Swope Health, Samuel Rodgers, and more.
"I want to live happily ever after the way I am. I'm really happy in life today and I think that's because of the hotel and my experience here," Thomas said. "I wouldn't ask for anything else."
Thomas's experience is why Riehle says she's called to this work every day.
"We can make it work, we can do the work and really change people's lives but, at the very minimum, the city needs to help support that," Riehle said.
City council approved a standalone Department of Housing and Community Development with resources and staffing for tenant advocacy and homeless prevention. It begins operation June 1.
Hernandez said the city is planning to build hundreds of affordable housing units on Barney Allis Plaza as part of the parking garage revamp.