For months individuals have been sleeping in makeshift tents near Independence Avenue and The Paseo Boulevard, adjacent to the campus of Kansas City University (KCU).
President and CEO of KCU Dr. Marc Hahn penned a letter to Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas, City Manager Brian Platt, MoDOT Director Patrick McKenna and Deputy Director and Chief Engineer Ed Hassinger.
“These encampments pose a clear and present danger to KCU’s students, 700 of which are returning to our campus starting Monday,” Hahn wrote in his July 9 letter.
Hahn attached photos to the letter taken from inside the KCU campus of tents – some constructed of tarps, curtains and sheets – in the median of the highway on-ramp at The Paseo.
“Recent events widely reported by the local news media illustrate just how dangerous these encampments can be,” Hahn wrote, pointing to articles he attached from Fox4, KMBC9, and The Martin City Telegraph. “Not to mention the danger the encampments create when they are located within inches of the pavement with a large volume of cars passing at high rates of speed. This puts both the homeless and the driving public at risk.”
The articles referenced report assault charges after a machete attack at the occupation camp on the steps of City Hall, and an investigation into a south Kansas City camp where stolen equipment was found.
As a boulevard, The Paseo is managed by the Kansas City, Mo. Parks and Recreation Department (KC Parks). Independence Avenue, now that it no longer carries the designation of Highway 24 through Northeast, is entirely maintained by City road crews. The intersection is connected directly to the north to the entrance ramp to northbound I-35, I-29 and 71 Highway, which makes it Missouri Department of Transportation (MoDOT) right of way.
“There is no excuse for the Parks Department and MoDOT officials allowing trespassers to set up temporary tents and makeshift lean-tos on City-owned parks and State-owned public right of way,” Hahn continued. “It is more egregious when they do so in a manner that creates dangerous conditions for themselves, the motoring public and KCU’s students.”
The effects of COVID-19 have exacerbated the housing situation for many, and during a particularly cold winter, the City began searching for solutions. Following a months-long occupation on the front steps of City Hall, local officials agreed to a temporary solution. Since April, the City has been housing approximately 500 people in local hotels. In June, the City extended the initial 90-day funding through July 15.
“We fear that the existing tents are simply a toehold for what will inevitably become a greater problem for our neighborhood,” Hahn wrote. “This is an existential threat to KCU.”
KCU is one of the most important institutions in the Old Northeast Neighborhood, explained Hahn, who has been in the position since 2013. Founded in 1916, KCU is one of the original osteopathic medical schools in the United States.
On the south side of Independence Avenue, KCU owns a community garden and parking lot. The school has been engaged with the Paseo Gateway Project. In 2017, KCU opened the first medical school campus in the southwest region of Missouri in Joplin, and is expanding with a $80 million College of Dental Medicine at that location.
“We want to continue to be an important anchor for the neighborhood in the future,” Hahn said. “In order for that to happen, we need both the City and the State of Missouri to be proactive in managing public land under your control in a way that, at the very least, does not damage institutions like ours.”
Although next steps to solve homelessness in Kansas City have been presented by groups like Merging KC, no action has been taken as time runs out. The group is proposing a Pallet shelter community in Kansas City, and although a location has not been finalized, it has received pushback from various neighborhood organizations who feel they have been left out of the conversation.
“As you know, this is a city-wide issue that is going to take some time to find a permanent solution,” KC Parks Interim Director Roosevelt Lyons said in response to the letter. “In the meantime, we will have our park rangers make regular rounds with our nonprofit partners who serve those experiencing homelessness in an attempt to find better accommodations for these individuals.”
Hahn’s letter garnered the university attention from City officials.
“I was pleased to hear from city leaders who received my letter detailing the extent of our concerns and to learn they share them,” Hahn said in an email to the Northeast News. “KCU will continue our proactive and collaborative efforts to improve and maintain the safety of the neighborhood for everyone. We look forward to working with elected officials and community leaders as we seek to find long-term solutions that will benefit our entire community.”
On Sunday, July 18, the City’s Public Works Department arrived on the scene of Camp Sixx in Westport with trash trucks and the Kansas City Police Department to evacuate people sleeping in tents there as part of a “citywide effort focused on litter, improper storage, and tenting in the public right of way.”
According to a press release from the City, they were working with the Housing and Community Development Department to connect any impacted houseless residents with open shelter opportunities, services, and resources.
City code prohibits littering and depositing of personal property in public right-of-way (Sec.62-89). Litter pickup in the public right-of-way is a regular activity supported by Public Works crews that happens frequently around Kansas City. City code also prohibits tenting on property without landowner consent, which becomes a life safety concern for persons occupying public property (Sec. 50-107).
“Safety and visibility for our residents and the traveling public and cleanliness of our right-of-way remains our responsibility under City Code,” Public Works Director Michael Shaw said. “Our goal is to keep the right-of-way clean and safe. Public Works was glad to help with this coordinated effort to ensure safe and litter free right-of-ways. All the while, we are proud to continue to support the City’s effort in assisting our houseless citizens in obtaining much needed assistance.”