KCMO undertakes labor of love

By Paul Thompson
Northeast News

How much do you love your neighborhood? How about your neighbor? A fledgling City sponsored pilot program puts that love to the test.

The Love Thy Neighbor program – the brain child of 5th District Councilwoman Alissia Canady – asks local volunteers to offer their time and energy to help their neighbors abate property violations. The program was designed specifically to help senior citizens who have been caught in a cycle of citations that they are either physically or financially unable to fix themselves.

“The ones who found themselves in court were often in disadvantaged communities,” said Canady. “It’s been an overwhelmingly successful program for those who have benefited from it. It’s been really transformative in that way.”

The pilot program – which up until now has relied on a one-time funding from the City’s sale of the Metropolitan Community College Pioneer Campus to KIPP KC in the summer of 2016 – will make its first foray into the Historic Northeast on Saturday, September 23. Love Thy Neighbor volunteers will turn their attention to the 800 block of Cypress from 8 a.m. to 12 p.m. to help 76-year-old Maxine Campbell abate property violations at her home.

Shawn Kirkwood, a Neighborhood and Housing Services Department diversion coordinator and the liaison for the Love Thy Neighbor program, told the Northeast News that prep work has already been completed at the property, as Campbell’s home had a tree growing through the roof. Initially, Kirkwood said, the courts just wanted volunteers to go onto the property to paint and to replace wood rot.

“A certain part of the service has to be done prior to us getting there. That job itself probably took three or four days,” said Kirkwood. “With Love Thy Neighbor, this is something that’s an added feature.”

Kirkwood said that Love Thy Neighbor has already helped 14 or 15 homeowners abate citations that have been referred through the courts. The Neighborhood and Housing Services department just hired a special projects coordinator to help the program organize even more special work days for homeowners with mounting housing citations.

“With the volunteers, it makes Love Thy Neighbor a little more unique. We want to pull the volunteer pool from around the community, if possible,” said Kirkwood. “We’re attempting to get a volunteer base that’s ongoing.”

In Campbell’s case, the painting and clean-up work at her property – not to mention the removal of the tree leaning dangerously against her house – will help her deal with a lingering issue that’s been looming large for the 76-year-old widow.

“Shawn just called me up not too long ago here and said that he was going to try to make her house more of a priority,” said Anita Holt, Campbell’s daughter. “He said that there was a Love Thy Neighbor thing, and he was going to get some volunteers. There’s a lot of work that needs to be done.”

Holt said that Campbell lives on a fixed income, and has limited funds to spend on major exterior repairs and clean-up around her home. She added that before Love Thy Neighbor, her mother wasn’t sure how she was going to address the citations.

“My mother would have never been able to afford any of this. It’s a big blessing that they’re doing this; she’s really thankful,” said Holt. “It wouldn’t be getting done, and she was really worried.”

Campbell’s case isn’t necessarily an outlier; Canady estimated that another 80 property owners throughout the city are currently in the backlog for the Love Thy Neigbhor program, meaning that those citizens are facing fines – and even the possibility of arrest – for home violations that they have little hope of abating without a helping hand.

“This was really a problem-solving effort,” Canady said. “It just shed light on an issue that was already present.”

Moving forward, Love Thy Neighbor will need to identify an additional funding source in order to continue being operated by the City of Kansas City. Canady said that she’s seen strong interest from her City Council colleagues to support the program. The Council is expected to conduct an initial assessment of the program sometime in the near future.

“The hope is that we build enough momentum that the City sees it as a valuable tool and that the City funds it in the future,” said Kirkwood.

Canady added that there is also a scenario where the program could eventually be best served by shifting over to the private sector. For now, though, she wants to continue rolling through the backlog of citations with the funds still available. To that end, Canady says that Kirkwood has served an invaluable role in getting the program off the ground.

“It’s been phenomenal. He’s the key coordinator for the project,” Canady said. “He has a critical role; he’s really more of a project manager in that regard. We’ve gotten overwhelmingly positive feedback from this program.”

One of the biggest issues with the program, according to Canady, has been finding a consistent volunteer base. She said that in some of the city’s distressed communities, she’s found that service organizations are looking for volunteers to help with their own special projects.

“Getting the volunteer piece in place has been a bigger issue in some neighborhoods than others,” said Canady. “It’s not consistent in all areas.”

One area where the Love Thy Neighbor program has found success, though, is in leveraging the City’s relationships with contractors to get discounted rates on essential repair work for citizens with nuisance and housing violations. In Campbell’s case, City contractor Wright Lawn and Landscaping offered a significant discount on the tree removal at her property.

“We wouldn’t have been able to do the job otherwise,” Kirkwood said.

Though the volunteer work day isn’t happening until this weekend, Campbell and Holt are already feeling the love.

“I definitely think it’s a great program,” Holt said. “I’m sure there are a lot more people like my mother who don’t have the resources or the help to take care of these things. We’re definitely both thankful for the help.”

To learn more about the Love Thy Neighbor program, or to get involved, contact Shawn Kirkwood with the Neighborhood and Housing Services Department at
shawn.kirkwood@kcmo.org.

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