PART ONE OF TWO. In this two-part series, Northeast News takes a look at Kansas City’s illegal homeless camps. Next week, we’ll highlight the city’s proposed solutions.
By LESLIE COLLINS
April 17, 2013
They’ve been called heartless, cruel.
For the Kansas City Police Department, raiding the city’s numerous homeless camps is creating a negative image.
On April 2, police officers raided a homeless camp in a wooded area near the Northeast baseball diamonds in the 6400 block of St. John Avenue and discovered something so surprising, it made national and international news. Hidden beneath logs and leaves were expertly crafted and unusually smooth tunnels.
“It was fairly unbelievable,” East Patrol Community Interaction Office Jason Cooley said. “It seemed like each time we went to the site, we discovered a new hole and a new tunnel.”
KCPD discovered six tunnels, which averaged five feet down and 10 feet across. One tunnel stretched more than 20 feet across, Cooley said. PVC pipe provided ventilation in the tunnels and one tunnel featured a makeshift fireplace with a candle. Through in-person contact and flyers, police gave a 48-hour notice to individuals to vacate the area and then filled in the tunnels.
“The whole story has pretty much gone viral,” Cooley said.
With the growing publicity has come growing criticism. Comment after comment on Yahoo! News questioned why the police would take away someone’s only source of shelter, stating the tunnels “weren’t hurting anyone.”
“Now they really are homeless,” one person commented on Yahoo!
Central Patrol Community Interaction Officer Jim Schriever called it a “huge public smear campaign” against Hope Faith Ministries, which partnered with the police department, and the police department itself.
“The police department is not mandated to be compassionate about the enforcement of city ordinances and laws,” Schriever said.
Nothing dictates that officers must give advance notice for individuals to vacate illegal homeless camps, he said.
However, by partnering with social service agencies like Hope Faith Ministries, KCPD is striving to show compassion and using those agencies to connect individuals to much needed services and safe shelters, Schriever said.
“It’s a luxury,” Schriever said of partnering with the local social service agencies. “It’s not something we have to do, but we think it is important to do because we are dealing with human beings within our city and we value each and every person that lives here.”
“From our standpoint, there’s a humanitarian issue here,” Cooley said. “Human beings should not be exposed to those types of environments. In my opinion, leaving them out there is simply ignoring the situation – out of sight, out of mind. When you ignore them, you don’t care.”
“The fact is, those are dangerous living situations for anybody,” said Evie Craig, executive director of reStart, Inc., an interfaith ministry that provides shelter and supportive services to homeless individuals and families with the end goal of helping them move toward independence and self-sufficiency.
Cooley agreed. If the tunnels collapsed on an individual or someone fell and broke a leg, emergency medical response would be challenging, he said.
“These places are so removed off the beaten path that if we have to get to them quickly to help, it’s not an easy task for us,” Cooley said.
Officers found children’s clothing, toys and dirty diapers at the camp, which caused concern, Cooley said. Hope Faith Ministries successfully contacted the mother who recently moved to the camp with her children. The mother told Hope Faith she settled at the camp due to a fight with her parents. Hope Faith helped the woman reconcile with her parents and also discussed other options and resources available as opposed to sleeping outside. The woman is now back at home with her parents and children.
Ninety-eight percent of the homeless camps that KCPD has raided show evidence of criminal activity, Schriever said.
“We see a whole different side when we go inside the campground with KCPD and it is alarming,” Hope Faith Ministries Executive Director Desiree Monize said.
There’s been evidence of shake-and-bake mobile methamphetamine labs, empty packets of synthetic marijuana and various types of weapons and guns.
“We’re aware that there are things like prostitution and domestic violence; people are being exploited in some of the campgrounds,” Monize said.
Evidence of scrap metal theft was present at both the baseball diamonds and at Kessler Park. In January, KCPD and the city’s parks and recreation department eradicated a homeless camp in Kessler Park that 150-plus individuals called home. The camp featured tents, tarps and campfires arranged in cul-de-sac fashion. There were separate cooking areas, latrines and clothes lines. At the time, mounds of various trash littered the park, including countless shards of glass. Individuals secured their excrement in plastic grocery bags and flung them onto tree branches throughout the park.
The transient population can have a devastating impact on communities, said Scarritt Renaissance Neighborhood Association President Leslie Caplan. Copper thefts in vacant homes have plagued the Scarritt neighborhood and earlier this year, vandals stole a section of the stainless steel art sculpture at The Concourse at Kessler Park. Caplan believes transients were the culprits.
“It destroyed our sculpture we had raised thousands of dollars for,” she said.
Scarritt wants to install a playground in the park but said their discussions revolve around how to prevent the equipment from being stolen or becoming a hangout spot for the homeless, she said.
“This is not a heartless neighborhood,” Scarritt Renaissance resident Frank Murphy said. “If we were those kinds of people, we wouldn’t likely live here. But, we do have our rights and interests and we do want them protected.”
One Historic Northeast business located near St. John Avenue and Bennington is considering relocating, thanks to the area transient camps, Cooley said. Vandals destroyed a grain elevator motor when they stripped it of copper, leaving $10 million worth of grain susceptible to spoiling. It will cost $250,000 to replace the motor that sifts the grain, and the company isn’t willing to spend the money, Cooley said. The company’s plan is to relocate within the next year or two, he said.
Area construction companies are also frustrated, Schriever said. While eradicating recent homeless camps, KCPD found substantial bundles of plastic cable with the copper stripped as well as tools used to burn off and strip rubber and plastic coatings from copper wires. It all came from area construction companies. Those companies are also threatening to “pack up shop,” Schriever said and are ready to find a city that’s more aggressive in preventing these kinds of crimes.
“It’s unfortunate,” Cooley said. “If we help get them resources, we hope they won’t feel the need to steal to support themselves in that way.”