The face of homelessness is changing in Kansas City. Often thought of as strictly a men’s issue, local shelters say there’s an increase in single women who are homeless needing help. The majority of women who are homeless have children with them, so resources for them are more readily available.
The number of unsheltered individuals has gone down over the past several years, and women make up a small group within that. These people are the minority but live a lifestyle that most will never see.
RELATED | Homelessness for women in KC
People who are homeless are fiercely protective of their camps in fear the city will kick them out, bulldoze their living area or someone else will move in on their turf.
41 Action News got the rare opportunity to see several of these camps, and talk with two women who live day-to-day.
The number of unsheltered individuals has gone down over the past several years, and women make up a small group within that. These people are the minority, but live a lifestyle that most will never get to see.
“I’d rather die on the streets than go into a shelter.”
Qiola and her boyfriend, Pete, have been homeless together for five years. They live in a small shack that Pete built, carved into a hard-to-reach wooded area in Kansas City.
As of now, they have no plans to go anywhere else.
“I mean, we’ve tried. I got friends that live indoors. I’ll go over and spend the night, but after the night, that’s it,” Qiola said.
They get their food, and a lot of their supplies, from various outreach programs. One of them is Uplift, where Jim Schmidt has volunteered for more than ten years. He hands out food and clothing out of a truck to people who are homeless at different stops each week. Pete and Qiola are regulars.
“They’re pretty self-sufficient.”
Schmidt said most people who live outside are usually bouncing around from place to place.
Schmidt took us to see Qiola and Pete’s camp. Over the years, they've made the place their own.
The pair said they are not advocating for homeless shelters. Pete said they’re like a “prison.”
“They take your clothes and steal your stuff,” Qiola said. “I just can’t have that.”
Schmidt said it’s not unusual for the people he encounters to avoid shelters.
“You got to remember a homeless person is waking up at a camp somewhere and now they have to make it through that day. And before you know it, the sun is setting and they got to do it again,” Schmidt said.
But Qiola seems to be content. She goes back and forth between wanting to try to seek shelter, but doesn't want to leave Pete, who doesn’t want to go indoors yet.
“It’s easier to have someone help you go through it,” she said.
Schmidt said many women stay with a man for protection, but even that can be dangerous because relationships can turn abusive.
Qiola said she and Pete used to fight a lot.
“There were a lot of black eyes,” she said.
But she never wanted to leave.
Schmidt said usually some form of addiction or mental illness makes the cycle even harder to get out of.
“It’s not like you can sit and plan your way out of this,” he said. “If you’re an addict or alcoholic, you got to worry about your fix for the day. That’s the number one thing.”
For Qiola, it’s alcohol.
“I wasn’t homeless. I was married. I got five kids. I got divorced and gave up on life,” she said.
Qiola said she doesn’t talk to her kids, and they don’t know where she is.
“I don’t want to talk about that. That is a very, very, very sore subject for me.”
41 Action News got the rare opportunity to see several of these camps, and talk to two women who live day-to-day.
Janet knows the feeling. Most days you can see her out at a corner in Kansas City with a cardboard sign asking for help.
“I lost my kids back in 2003, and I went through an ordeal with my mental illness from it, and slowly have started putting my pieces back together,” Janet said.
She also went through a period of alcoholism, but said she stopped.
Janet lives in a tent in the woods. On the streets for ten years, Janet said a lot of women get raped or wind up in prostitution.
“You can’t trust anybody but yourself, and that’s the foremost.”
After our interview, Janet told me she had to move to a different camp because the man she was with abused her. The people in the new camp wouldn’t let cameras inside. She didn’t go to a shelter.
“It’s a choice. Because some of the shelters, they say they help you do this and they help you do that. And basically you go in there and ask them for the help they say they’re going to give, and a lot of it is, ‘Okay, we can’t help you there.’”
Janet said a lot of people judge people who are homeless for not having jobs. The hardest part about that, she said, is actually finding an employer willing to hire a person who is homeless, and finding transportation back and forth until that first pay check.
“So you got to do what you got to do to survive,” Janet said.
Watch an extended interview with Janet. Note: Topics may be uncomfortable to some viewers. If you cannot see the media player below, click here to watch.
“It’s a hopelessness, for sure,” Schmidt said. “The way they think anymore is broken, and that’s hard to change.”
Qiola said she doesn't mind being homeless. “The only thing I hate is no running water, especially when you’re a woman and you’re out here.”
Her future is uncertain, but she finds joy in this life: special keepsakes she’s collected from friends over the years, her Bible, photos, and her dog, who she loves like a child.
“In a sense, this place is beautiful. It’s not very big, but it’s home. For now.”
Sarah Plake can be reached at email@example.com .