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'We don't want people to die': Homeless advocates talk about plans ahead of winter

Ryana Parks-Shaw
Posted at 5:50 PM, Oct 06, 2021
and last updated 2021-10-06 19:27:32-04

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Addressing the needs of homeless people in Kansas City comes down to one thing:

"We dont want people to die," Josh Henges, an advocate for the homeless, said.

Last year exposed glaring needs for those experiencing homelessness after people did die out in the cold.

"Last winter, what we saw was a huge jump in consolidated pockets of homelessness. And the city responded quickly, it just wasn't organized well," Henges said.

Josh Henges contracts with a couple advocacy organizations, including Lotus Care House.

They're looking at last year's warming centers & the hotel initiative as lessons to get on the same page as the winter months loom ahead.

Henges said the number one goal when working with the people experiencing homelessness is to get them into permanent housing.

The warming center and the hotel initiative were new concepts for the city. People were shuffled around every three months while the city decided what to do next, while outreach groups were doing their best to keep track of everyone.

"What I'm seeing is that it seems like we have a never-ending circle," Ryana Parks-Shaw, 5th district city councilwoman, said.

Service providers met in several meetings on Tuesday, including the city's houseless task force, to talk about next steps.

Some of those steps are: developing a community needs assessment, an extreme weather plan, and new apps for street outreach with real-time information on shelter capacity.

Henges said the groups also talked about how to maximize and create new space at existing shelters.

Leaders said there will not be another warming center at Bartle Hall this winter, but they're talking about launching a better version of it elsewhere.

The city is reviewing 19 applications to turn abandoned buildings into housing. It's part of the city's five-year plan to develop 10,000 affordable housing units with people experiencing homelessness in mind.

Parks-Shaw said $80 million is divvied out to organizations who help the homeless in Kansas City, and maybe the task force should look harder at how the money is spent.

"What happens is we put all these dollars there to get them off the street but we're not seeing long-term sustainable success," Parks-Shaw said.

She suggested spending more money on wraparound services and less on day-of emergency services.

Henges said the city's shelter model does not work.

"A lot of homeless folks don't want to go to shelter and there's a lot of reasons for it," Henges said. "And if folks would rather risk hypothermia and death, we all need to come together to fix that."

The need is and always has been affordable housing, which has become a crisis around the country.

"How many places have single-room occupancy? It just doesn't exist. And the vast majority of the homeless are needing that specific thing," Henges said.

These talks will continue throughout the fall.

Kansas City, Missouri, is also working with Kansas City, Kansas, Independence, and Lee's Summit on warming centers in those communities.

Marqueia Watson, director of the Greater Kansas City Coalition to End Homelessness, said it's a regional issue. People from all over the metro come to Kansas City for help.

Watson said outreach groups have noticed a surge in unsheltered people.

"We have a significant challenge before us," Watson said.

Last year's Point In Time count, which counts the number of people experiencing homelessness on one given day, revealed that 1,099 people were sheltered and 476 were unsheltered.

Watson said the Point In Time count is flawed, and the numbers are likely higher.

Another issue is an increase in family homelessness, such as people living in their cars or staying with friends.

Watson said Care Beyond the Boulevard, a group that provides free medical care to those experiencing homelessness and low-income folks, reported that people needing their help doubled since this time last year.

Just recently, Kansas City, Missouri, Mayor Quinton Lucas signed onto the new House America initiative. It's a program by the Department of Housing and Urban Affairs that calls on mayors and state leaders to set firm goals to develop affordable housing with federal dollars by the end of 2022.