After weeks of strife caused by an influx of houseless Kansas Citians in Columbus Park, the source, an overnight warming center that was opened at the Garrison Community Center, moved to downtown’s Bartle Hall last Friday.
The Scott Eicke Warming Center, named in honor of a houseless individual who was found on January 1 deceased in the cold near 24th and Woodland, was established at Garrison, at 1124 E 5th St. in Columbus Park, which opened on January 14 from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. as an emergency shelter on nights where it dipped below 32 degrees or when inclement weather was expected with a max of 100 people.
“This has been an attempt to solve a very real and immediate need with a quick turnaround,” Councilman Eric Bunch said in an email to the Northeast News. “Ultimately, we must work toward sustained and long-term solutions by coordinating with leadership in the public and private sector. We look forward to working with city staff, neighborhoods, unhoused service providers, and our unhoused citizens to do just that.”
However, with an influx of dozens of people who were locked out each night when the center reached capacity or set outside each morning, residents noticed an uptick in attempted thefts, public urination or defecation, and aggressive panhandling.
“I can actually say I’ve received a vast, or substantial amount of complaints directly to me from the neighborhood, compared to what I would normally get,” said Ryan Mills, Kansas City Police Department (KCPD) Center Patrol Division Major, last week. “We have made an effort to try and patrol more in the area… we don’t have the resources to provide enough security down there to meet the expectations of the neighborhood.”
Neighbors tried to be understanding since many shelters are at a reduced capacity due to COVID-19 and the unhoused population is growing, but were also concerned with their personal safety. Columbus Park residents, especially women, noted feeling uneasy, rattled and unsafe in recent weeks. Neighbors recommended getting registered to conceal carry, locking doors and not walking home alone. They even floated the idea of hosting a self-defense class.
Columbus Park is home to a number of charities and public housing sites, like Don Bosco Centers, Sewing Labs, Columbus Park Plaza and Guinotte Manor, which has a Head Start daycare. One staff member said a man who appeared to be unhoused came into the building last week and began making unpleasant comments and threatening a Muslim staff member and a Somali family.
“We have to draw the line at neighborhood safety, especially with the elderly and children,” said Kate Barsotti, Columbus Park Community Council board member. “I’m a big believer in compassion, but it can’t solve everything, and all of our compassion is not going to diffuse this suffering or to transition people off the street. We’re not a means to an end, either for the city to check this off their list or for advocates to fulfill their mission, no matter how admirable.”
Neighborhood leadership asked the Parks Department to extend hours or put portable toilets near Garrison. The department only has jurisdiction on park properties, not streets, but park rangers said they would try to be more visible.
Barsotti doesn’t blame the advocates who worked tirelessly to make this happen, instead finding it the responsibility of the City to communicate with the surrounding community. She spent hours trying to figure out which groups were organizing volunteers and trying to get in contact with them.
“Advocates pushed really hard when they had a death in the homeless community for a warming center solution,” Barsotti said. “I guess from the neighborhood’s perspective, the problems aren’t during when the hours it’s open but it’s when they’re closed, and they have nowhere else to go.”
One group, the Greater Kansas City Coalition to End Homelessness, is the coordinating body for unhoused people in Kansas City and serves as the Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Continuum of Care. Creative Innovative Entrepreneurs (CIE) is organizing volunteers.
A GoFundMe was established by organizers to purchase cots, blankets, pillows and other basic supplies. It circulated among residents of Columbus Park, who were generous and willing to volunteer, despite their reservations.
The neighborhood and many in Northeast were vocal in their opposition to a proposed tent camp for the unhoused on the site of the now-demolished Chouteau Courts late last year, citing similar concerns. Some feel that this opposition is why the neighborhood was left out of conversations on the warming center.
“As a neighborhood we would appreciate a comprehensive strategy to create more than just short term reactions, and a real solution to housing people and getting them the help they need, and we have found the City is unable to do much more than reactive solutions,” Barsotti said. “And it is causing us, and the charities and the advocates to do their jobs for them.”
Bunch and Legislative Aide Crissy Dastrup made a site visit in mid-January to meet with organizers to discuss ongoing resources and a new Unhoused Bill of Rights they’re proposing.
“While I was on site, there were volunteers helping a gentleman fill out paperwork to get a new SNAP card – he lost his previous card,” Dastrup said. “There are simple and needed services that can make a big impact on a life in survival mode. Also during my visit I was impressed at the level of organization from processing guests, to management of inventory supply lists, to management of meals. The dedication of the volunteers is truly amazing.”
After multiple nights of the center being filled to capacity, and volunteers having to turn people away, the City made Bartle Hall available to the organizations, a move Mayor Quinton Lucas called overdue.
“In recent weeks the City Council and myself have done much more work than trying to say that it’s not okay to look the other way when there are so many who are confronting homelessness,” Lucas said. “And I think this is one of many steps, a short term step, but one of many steps to address our issues long term, we recognize that as we address unhoused issues, we understand that there are short term solutions intermediate and long term. Kansas City Government is interested in addressing all of those.”
The Scott Eicke Warming Center at the convention center will initially start with 150 beds, but City Manager Brian Platt said the space has potential to expand to an unlimited amount if needed.
“The challenges that our unhoused population faces are not new, but the COVID-19 pandemic is exacerbating a lot of the challenges that people of this city are facing, which is requiring us to think about these challenges in new ways,” Platt said.
Gabby Weeks, who has been acting as the volunteer coordinator for the warming center, said the organizers plan to hold the City accountable for the services it said it would provide, and will be training City staff to work in the center.
Stephanie Boyer, CEO of reStart, which has been providing wrap-around support and housing services for 40 years, was happy last Friday afternoon to be part of this solution.
“There is a continued growing need,” Boyer said. “We have a long way to go, and this is a great step but we all must stay focused on building a community-wide plan that is really addressing how we are going to end homelessness. It’s possible.”
The City Council has directed the City to employ a Homelessness Services Task Force, which will work with community advocates and organizations, many of whom will be providing services at the warming center.
“This is a much better location, it’s more conducive for bringing some more of those wrap-around services to be here as needed,” Platt said.
To mitigate the spread of COVID-19, volunteers do temperature checks and encourage the use of sanitizer and frequent hand washing. Organizers have been implementing designated spaces for people who identify as women, men or non-binary so they remain separate to keep everyone safe. Although there have been older teenagers, Weeks said they haven’t had any children stay with them.
“If they’re a couple or family they’ll be allowed to sleep together in the same area that they are given for social distancing,” Weeks said.
Weeks and other volunteers had previously been providing supplies to houseless camps throughout the city, but she said they finally were able to put enough pressure on the City to get a space in January. She hopes having people in a central location will make administering services easier.
“We have definitely enjoyed getting to know the neighbors around Columbus Park, they’ve been really helpful and we’re appreciative of them,” Weeks said, adding that volunteers can use the Scott Eicke Warming Center SignUpGenius to donate their time.
Public Works transported the supplies from Garrison to Bartle Hall on Friday, and additional equipment was added from the City’s Office of Emergency Management.
Weeks said as an “anti-cop organization,” they have employed the Revolutionary Black Panther Party to provide security for the Scott Eicke Warming Center.
Over the weekend, reStart pulled their support for the center, citing misaligned values, including that reStart is proud to work with KCPD to support people experiencing homelessness. The organization remains a partner to the City in an effort to end homelessness.
The City initially reached out to reStart to support the warming center at Garrison, but soon raised concerns about bags not being checked for weapons, drugs or alcohol. After moving to Bartle Hall, reStart’s team initially thought they could overcome the differences, but encountered issues from the beginning. Boyer noted issues with communication during set-up, and at 6 p.m., when the center was supposed to open CIE wanted to wait until there was a signed agreement from the City. She felt that the City and reStart were being “held hostage.”
Councilwoman Ryana Parks-Shaw and Neighborhood and Housing Services Director John Wood got involved, and the center opened at 6:45 p.m. Friday.
“Every attempt I made to have a collaborative conversation was met with disrespect and at 9:30 that evening ended with Anton Washington, founder of CIE, yelling at me about a multitude of things beyond my control with no intention of true collaboration,” Boyer wrote. “Never in my 20 years of doing this work have I been met with so much resistance, disrespect and lack of collaboration.”
“This warming center will be staffed by members of Kansas City government during all hours of operation,” Lucas said. “There are no plans for full-time armed security, though the City will engage the Kansas City Police Department should it ever be necessary. We appreciate our partnership with several community groups who have long worked to care for those experiencing homelessness.”
On Saturday morning, Lucas shared on Twitter that he drove several folks from Bartle Hall to Hope Faith, and was proud to see the strong work of volunteers like Washington, thanking City staff for setting up the warming center. Lucas heard concerns about needing IDs and addresses to receive stimulus checks, a need for no-fare, regular routes to suburban jobs, evictions and wrap-around services needed. Lucas said the City will enhance offerings from 6 to 8 a.m. to help with job searches, housing and social services.