From Bernice Howe’s front window in North Blue Ridge neighborhood, there is a clear view of the I-435 underpass at 24 Highway.
Within sight, there are five or six individuals roaming the intersection: some panhandling, some sleeping, and one walking back and forth in no direction at all.
Just above piles of sleeping bags and trash, the words “no trespassing” are stenciled in black letters on the underpass pillars.
Just beyond the pillars in the upper portion of the underpass, rows of people are sleeping.
Howe said she has had more than she can take living in the neighborhood that she says has become overrun with members of the transient community.
She said because of the crime and violence, she is no longer allowed to keep her grandchildren at her own house.
“I can’t even have my grandchildren over here. They can’t even play in my yard. My daughter will not allow them down here because of this. Is that fair? I’m a grandma. I love my grandbabies,” she said.
A quick drive around the neighborhood, down Donnelly Avenue to Blue Ridge Boulevard and back up to 24 Highway, revealed a handful of transient community members walking along the streets, sleeping in the treeline at New Winner Park, and roughly a dozen individuals congregating at the Express Stop at Wallace Avenue and 24.
A concrete slab next to a playground area at New Winner Park was overrun with garbage, dirty clothes and shoes strewn about, a trash receptacle was overflowing with food containers, and a black trash bag ripped open, contents blowing onto the play area.
Howe said local churches and nonprofit organizations continue to offer meals to the transient community just a block from her home in the park and at a local church.
This, she said, brings them through her neighborhood regularly.
“They stay in the area, knowing they will be fed four or five times a week,” she said. “I understand their need to get a meal. I get that. But when it causes so much trouble for me, a taxpayer who worked my whole life for this city, something has to be done.”
Howe said these individuals have caused a great deal of harm harassing her, stealing from her, and retaliating against her when she speaks out.
She said her community garden has been trampled in, tools, wood, and a wheelbarrow were stolen from her backyard, vehicles have been broken into, her AC unit stolen from her home, fires have been started across the street in retaliation, she has nearly been assaulted and one man has threatened her life.
One individual, she said, is a known arsonist and has been setting things on fire and walks down the street with a machete, cutting down trees to “release their souls.”
As an Uber driver, she said she has nearly hit dozens of intoxicated individuals who walk in the middle of the street.
Howe is left asking: what will it take?
She said, in her estimation, three things will help the issue: nonprofit organizations not offering free meals in her neighborhood, a heavier police presence, and getting the state highway authorities involved.
When she contacts the police, she is told there is nothing that can be done.
“The laws are on their side,” she said. “According to council members, this is a free country and they can do what they want. In that same token, I should have rights. By the constitution, they have every right to do what they want, but why is the constitution not working for me?”
This issue of large numbers of transient community members isn’t unique to North Blue Valley neighborhood.
All along Independence Avenue, in Kessler Park, at major intersections in the Northeast, and several other areas, transient community members are common.
Officer Greg Smith, community interaction officer with East Patrol, a zone that covers over 98,000 residents, said from a law enforcement perspective, their hands are tied to some degree.
“It’s not against the law to be homeless. It’s not against the law to walk around with a machete,” he said. “Unless they are breaking a law, there is not much the police department can do other than offer services and try and get them help, but it’s up to them to receive it. Under the constitution, it’s their constitutional right as freedom of speech to stand there and hold a sign.”
Smith said at one point, there was a pedestrian safety ordinance that was being discussed in City Hall that would address panhandling, but was never passed.
“We had four or five meetings at City Hall and each time it got tabled. We were hoping to get it passed to address that issue,” he said. “It would have been a ‘move along’ where you can’t stand in a spot for more than reasonable time to cross the street.”
But without some type of law against panhandling, Smith said there is nothing they can enforce unless a law is broken.
Smith said they have been working with the Missouri Department of Transportation (MODOT) and the City of Kansas City to address the issue by putting up “no trespassing” signs and keeping a list of repeat offenders.
Smith said citizens can call police if a law is clearly being broken.
“If they are trespassing, creating a disturbance, assaulting you, or causing traffic to be blocked by walking up to cars, people can call for those things,” he said.
Smith said what would potentially help is having a pedestrian safety ordinance that could be enforced and offering the homeless job training.
“It would be one tool in the toolbox that could be used,” he said. “If we could have a designated area where homeless can eat and get shelter and get offered some type of job training, that would help. When you talk to a lot of homeless people, they are skilled. A lot are veterans. Their camps are set up incredibly well and you can tell they are highly skilled.”
Scott Wagner, director of Northeast Alliance Together (NEAT), said the few ordinances that he had been a part of at City Hall that would address these issues were met with a lot of resistance.
A food sharing permit, which would have required nonprofit organizations to obtain a permit and set out trash receptacles to adequately collect all waste, was met with arguments that the homeless were being negatively targeted.
A ‘no standing’ ordinance was not passed due to unclear guidelines surrounding various organizations that conduct fundraisers by collecting money at intersections.
“Whenever you raise this issue, you instantly jump into the First Amendment issue,” Wagner said.
He said the City will regularly clear out parks where homeless people are camping.
“Without a permit, that’s illegal, and gets invoked pretty regularly,” he said.
The City identifies a site, puts up signage to alert individuals, goes into the park and offers services, and then clears out the campsite.
The Kansas City Assessment and Triage Center was also created to assist individuals who are experiencing a mental health or substance use crisis that come into contact with KCPD or an approved emergency department.
According to their website, KC-area hospitals and emergency departments experienced over 8,000 visits per year from patients with substance use disorders (with no other life-threatening emergent medical conditions) and over 9,000 visits per year from clients with serious mental illness.
In 2013, data shows that the top 50 ambulance users had between 27 and 127 ambulance runs. Seventy-four percent of those ambulance users had also had contact with municipal court.
Additionally, the top ten offenders arrested for panhandling in 2013 had an average of 34.2 arrests.
There are two units at the Triage Center with a total of 16 slots available. There is an eight-slot sobering unit for those whose primary presenting issue is substance abuse and an eight-slot stabilization unit for those whose primary presenting issue is mental health. Clients can stay for up to 23 hours.
“The triage center was created especially for those who are ready to get some kind of help,” said Wagner. “Hundreds if not thousands of people have been helped.”
Because there are no enforceable laws regarding panhandling, Wagner said a lot of their work has been done by dealing with secondary issues.
“In many respects on this issue, we’ve had to do things on the peripheries, like the scrap metal legislation,” he said. “I don’t necessarily see an appetite at local, state, or federal level to create more restrictive ordinances, which means we have to provide more services or figure out ways it makes these negative activities more difficult.”
Wagner said there are a lot of means in the Northeast for that lifestyle to be prevalent.
“It’s easy to get in and out, you’ve got trains and buses moving through here all the time, you’ve got convenience stores, you’ve got a lot of places to camp out, whether it’s a vacant structure or a whole lot of park land, and then you have enough places where you can go to get some form of assistance, or a meal, or money. It’s kind of a perfect storm of things that allow it to continue and not enough services to go around.”
In addressing the frustration of many in the Northeast, not just Howe, Wagner said enforcement isn’t the long-term solution.
“The reality is, if anybody thinks you can enforce your way out of the problem, you’re not. The pieces aren’t there. The laws aren’t there. The manpower is not there,” he said.
Speaking long-term, Wagner said addressing the root issues: mental health support and on-demand housing is what is needed.
“What I think the only long-term solution that’s really viable is we have got to say to our city and to our state that there really has to be more money set aside to deal with mental health issues,” he said. “There has to be more money set aside to provide housing on demand.”
Ultimately, he said, the individuals who are not willing to remove themselves from that lifestyle have no incentive to move elsewhere.
“At the end of the day, they will stand there because they know they are going to get paid,” he said.
As the new director of NEAT as of August 1, 2019, Wagner said the issue is definitely on his radar, and he is considering working on a plan that will address the issue.
**Edit: Article edited to change North Blue Valley neighborhood to North Blue Ridge neighborhood.