City debuts cold weather plans for unhoused

The proposed location for Pallet shelters neighboring Hope Faith Homeless Assistance Campus would vacate Virginia Ave., which is already barricaded. Photo by Abby Hoover

The Housing and Community Development Department updated the City Council about plans for helping Kansas City’s houseless community this winter at the Business Session on Thursday, October 28 at City Hall.

The department estimates that Kansas City has anywhere from 1,700 to 2,000 unhoused people living in parks, under bridges, on private land, in right of ways, and in a number of shelters. While their estimates are conservative, they expect to see an increase in 2023.

One focus will be enhanced collaboration with existing shelters to pinpoint available beds and ensure that service providers fully utilize resources, including creation of a new online dashboard that updates bed availability daily, with data sharing across all service providers.

They will focus on preparing overflow space, such as community centers, as needed when extreme weather or other emergencies increase the demand for services when shelters are full. Last year, places like the Garrison Community Center in Columbus Park were utilized.

From January to March 2021, the City opened Bartle Hall Convention Center as a warming center, sheltering up to 500 people per night, serving 28,000 meals, and connecting homeless individuals with 15 partner agencies for social services.

The City then pivoted to housing people in hotels from April through July, while attempting to connect them with services. According to the City, nearly 120 people signed up for first-time benefits like Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. Almost 350 people were connected to housing services providers, most of whom had never been associated with those programs, and more than 50 people found employment. Of the 220 people who received medical care, nearly 20 people received critical, potentially life-threatening medical treatment, and two babies were born safely.

Bartle Hall not being an option this year, different City services like KCATA, the fire department and health department are pitching in to fill the gap, along with the American Red Cross.

“Thanks to a collaborative effort by City staff, housing staff and our community assistance partners, we have a plan to keep those needing shelter this winter safe, warm and out of the elements,” said Jennifer Tidwell, Housing and Community Development Interim Director. 

The Houseless Task Force, chaired by Fifth District Councilmember Ryana Parks-Shaw, was tasked with engaging with community members and leading discussions to better understand the needs of unhoused people in Kansas City.

“The community’s input has been so important in creating new and better policies,” Parks-Shaw said. “The issues surrounding houselessness are vast and won’t be solved in one year. This is a positive step in the right direction to provide compassionate, sustainable and intentional solutions to end houselessness in Kansas City. We still have more work to do.”  

Additionally, staff presented three preferred proposals for “creative and innovative new permanent supportive housing options.” City staff also recommended creative new permanent housing options, including three new permanent housing projects that were selected out of 18 responses to a Requests for Proposal the City put out.

“Bold and creative housing options are the focus in our efforts to build 10,000 new affordable housing units over the next five years,” City Manager Brian Platt said. “Permanent, supportive housing will be crucial to ending homelessness for so many of our residents.” 

The first recommended proposal includes converting two vacant hotels into approximately 100 single room occupancy apartments. This will include supportive services through a navigation center to connect residents with social services. The proposal is for the Days Inn at 5100 E. Linwood Blvd., at 31st and Linwood, south of I-70. The $1.3 million proposal from Lotus Care House would be converted into permanent supportive housing in partnership with KC Tenants. It would also house an additional 75 unhoused individuals with medical needs while they transition to stable housing.

The second recommended proposal is to install approximately 30 Pallet “tiny homes” on Virginia Street in front of Hope Faith Homeless Assistance Campus at 705 Virginia Avenue in partnership with Merging KC. A Pallet community proposal has been proposed before, but has been stuck in the Finance, Governance and Public Safety Committee since July.

The $1 million project would have 24-hour security, food, bathrooms, water and laundry on-site. Wraparound services would be provided by case workers and counselors, as well as employment assistance. It would act as a transitional step to permanent housing options.

A long-term solution was also recommended, providing funding to Amethyst Place for expansion that will create approximately 37 permanent affordable housing units for single mothers and their children. While the City would contribute $300,000, Amethyst would seek other sources of funding like Low Income Housing Tax Credits. According to the department, construction could start in 2022, and the project would be completed in 2023.

These proposals contribute to the improved housing infrastructure and services achieved over the past several months, which range from immediate assistance to long-term plans and policy changes, according to the department, which includes allocating $12.5 million to the City’s first-ever affordable Housing Trust Fund that will incentivize the creation of affordable housing units and other housing options within larger otherwise market-rate multifamily development projects. Ordinance 210873, which was held in Thursday’s Council meeting, would establish a governing body to review Housing Trust Fund (“HTF”) applications, with reporting requirements, funding allocation direction and prioritization of fund use; and requiring the application process to begin within 120 days.

The City has distributed $14 million in emergency rental assistance funds to over 3,000 households in Kansas City, averaging $4,400 per household; developed a “Vision for Housing” that outlines the plan to create 10,000 new affordable housing units by 2027; established a new Housing and Community Development Department with the City’s first employees dedicated to homelessness prevention and support, tenant advocacy, and affordable housing creation and preservation; and is converting abandoned houses into affordable housing by offering them for sale for $1 through the Land Bank; building affordable housing on vacant lots owned by the City, Land Bank, or Homesteading Authority; and constructing affordable housing on City-owned property in creative ways, such as the plan to incorporate affordable housing units into the reconstruction of the Barney Allis Parking Plaza.

City Union Mission will operate a “reservation” hotline, 2-1-1 and website to assist with making bed availability known. The agency announced Friday a plan to increase bed capacity for homeless families, women and children.

“We are looking to utilize every available space at our Family Shelter to ensure our guests feel safe, secure, valued and respected,” said City Union Mission CEO Terry Megli. “Our long-term goal is a new Family Shelter, but with winter fast approaching, we sought a short-term solution of expanding our bed capacity within our existing facility.”

In partnership with Shield Casework of Kansas City, the Mission will install eight customized “murphy bed” units called DOME pods, as well as more than 20 traditional bedding units to expand lodging capacity by 30% while maintaining the functionality of their Family Center. The DOME pods, which will be indoors, create privacy in a large room like a gymnasium. They include a bed with room for storage underneath, a lockable wardrobe, partitions, access to an outlet, and an optional fabric canopy to enclose the DOME for additional privacy and safety.

“Providing a solution to homeless housing has been a primary focus of ours, having produced DOME homeless pods on a national level for several months,” said Shield Casework Founder and Chief Design Officer Stephen Hopkins. “With the innovation of City Union Mission, we are excited to bring this solution to our local city where we see the need on a daily basis.”

The Mission is seeking community support to help fund the cost of the expansion along with the extra staff and additional bathrooms and showers needed to accommodate more homeless guests.

“For a family in crisis, a safe, comfortable bedroom provides a welcoming start on their journey to recovery,” Megli said. “We are asking the community to help provide this comfortable space that vulnerable families can seek refuge in this winter and throughout the year.”

Also on Thursday, Resolution 21099 was introduced, which would direct the City Manager, in coordination with the City’s Unhoused Task Force, to develop standard operating procedures concerning encampments and persons occupying public property in Kansas City, and to propose any appropriate, corresponding amendments to the City Code in order to effectuate such procedures.

The resolutions will now head to committees, where they will be heard separately. Follow the Northeast News for updates on this developing story.

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