KC homelessness – it’s a multifaceted issue

kessler- camp diff angle.tif

Makeshift camp. Remnants of an illegal homeless camp litter George E. Kessler Park. Despite police raids, individuals continue to flock to the wooded area to live.  Leslie Collins

PART TWO OF TWO. In this two-part series, Northeast News takes a look at Kansas City’s solutions to addressing homelessness.

By LESLIE COLLINS
Northeast News
April 24, 2013

As cars whiz by the outskirts of George E. Kessler Park along I-35, it’s easy to overlook one of the city’s first established parks.

But beyond the trees and beyond the bluffs lies a subculture. Beyond those trees, there is desperation, there is homelessness. Despite police raids, individuals continue to flock to the woods. Some are veterans, some are those who want to escape their home life and some are criminals.

The camps scattered throughout Kessler Park have become a catalyst for change. City officials are continuing to meet regularly with area social services agencies, the Kansas City Police Department (KCPD), area churches and neighborhood leaders to discuss the issues surrounding Kessler Park and how to implement changes citywide to address homelessness.

“My conviction and contention is we can do better,” City Council member Scott Wagner said.

During a 2012 Point in Time Count of homeless individuals, the Homeless Services Coalition of Greater Kansas City counted 2,434 homeless individuals in the Kansas City area. That number included 364 families and 298 veterans. Of the 364 families, 26.4 percent said this was their first time being homeless. The report linked homelessness to a variety of issues, including factors rooted in poverty, increased long-term unemployment in Kansas City, a shortage of affordable housing units in Kansas City and a reduction in funds to social services agencies.

“It’s a situation that we’ve all got to work together to solve,” said Central Patrol Community Interaction Officer Jim Schriever.

One solution the city is considering is establishing a Homeless Outreach Team (HOT) comprised of a variety of city departments, KCPD and social services organizations.

“The idea is to identify issues and problems that are beyond just simply can I give you a place to stay,” Wagner said.

One of the goals is to identify illegal homeless camps before they become well established and connect homeless individuals to needed resources, whether it be a more permanent living situation or connecting those with mental health issues to mental health services and connecting veterans to veteran services or helping individuals solve family issues. It’s about identifying individual needs, Wagner said.

One honorably discharged veteran reStart Inc. met had been living on the streets for about 15 years, said Ehren Dohler, campaign manager of the local 100,000 Homes Campaign.

“He had no idea the VA (Veterans Affairs) was a resource for him,” Dohler said.

reStart Inc. has since connected the man to VA services.

Another issue affecting the city is the variety of faith-based organizations driving to Kansas City to feed the homeless at their camps or on the street. Not all of the groups have applied for the necessary food permits and the city’s health department is concerned about hygienic practices in terms of food preparation, cleanliness, proper holding temperatures and proper packaging.

“Food handling is very important and we want to make sure all the food that’s served is prepared at a permitted kitchen,” Kansas City Environmental Public Health Manager Naser Jouhari said. “We want to make sure we can track the food in case of a food borne illness.”

Without a food permit, the city doesn’t know whether the food is safe or healthy, Schriever said.

The Kansas City health department successfully contacted one of the organizations that fed the homeless without a food permit and Naser said the organization understood the situation and then applied for a permit. A number of other groups, however, are continuing to serve food without a food permit from unmarked vehicles, and the city is working to identify those organizations. Naser stressed that the city waives the permit fees for non-profit organizations.

All vehicles serving food must display a permit sticker and Nasser said individuals can contact the city’s 3-1-1 Action Center at (816) 513-1313 or contact the city health department, (816) 513-6315, to report groups that are illegally serving food. It’s also helpful for citizens to write down the license plate, location and other pertinent information. Individuals can also contact the city if they know of a group that routinely shows up to a certain location at a certain time of day to serve food without a permit.

Along with feeding comes a personal safety component, Schriever said. Earlier this summer, a faith-based organization from the suburbs drove to Kansas City to feed and fellowship with the homeless.

“There were some under aged kids that were part of the group that had minimal supervision,” Schriever said. “The individuals that those particular young people were talking to were sex offenders. So, it’s a public safety concern to us as well. They don’t know if that individual is suffering from some sort of mental disorder that needs professional attention. They don’t know if that individual has a conviction history of a violent crime. They just really don’t know… If we’ve got individuals coming in and just passing out the essentials and not requiring those people to seek medical attention or social services attention, then they (homeless) can freely continue that cycle.

“We appreciate what they’re (faith-based groups) doing and are sympathetic to what they’re doing, but if you really want to benefit the homeless, direct your dollars and volunteer hours to one of our established professional service providers because we’re not going to save anybody by feeding them out of the back of a trunk.”

Feeding the homeless on-site also generates a multitude of trash that litters the surrounding neighborhood, Wagner said. That’s why the city is working on creating an ordinance similar to one in Dallas, Texas, that requires the feeding groups to provide trash cans, portable toilets, among other requirements. The goal is to have the ordinance ready for approval by June, Wagner said.

In terms of housing, a number of area organizations like reStart Inc. are participating in the 100,000 Homes Campaign, which connects homeless individuals to permanent housing that offers supportive services. To date, 39,557 individuals across the U.S. have been housed through the campaign. Since October, more than 52 individuals have been housed through the campaign in the Kansas City area, Dohler said. Two of those individuals were living in Kessler Park and were housed through reStart.

“It’s a housing first model – getting people off streets, out of shelters and straight into permanent housing. For a lot of people on the streets, this (permanent housing) is what they want,” Dohler said.

The retention rate of stable housing after a year is 85 percent, he said of the campaign’s success.

Currently, reStart and other organizations are providing housing through a variety of subsidies, including federal grants, HUD-VASH (Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing), Shelter Plus Care vouchers and other avenues. Once a resident finds employment, he or she pays up to 30 percent of his or her income for rent.

The biggest barrier in the program is finding enough subsidies, Dohler said.

Wagner said the city supports the 100,000 Homes initiative and hopes to partner with the social services organizations to figure out how to utilize foreclosed and tax delinquent properties that the city now owns.

“My hope is that what we do through an ordinance,” Wagner said, “what we do through a HOT team, what we do through a rehousing strategy or any other strategy for that matter, it has an effect across the entire city and pools all agencies together.”

A mattress and other left over debris from a homeless camp lie in the woods of Kessler Park. Leslie Collins

Trash accumulation from homeless camps is an issue that’s affecting a number of Kansas City neighborhoods. Above is a look at the trash build-up at Kessler Park. Leslie Collins

Here’s another view of the trash at Kessler Park. Leslie Collins

Blankets cover this shack that was left behind at Kessler Park. Leslie Collins

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