Northeast residents push back on Chouteau tent camp

Abby Hoover
Managing Editor

Though mild temperatures have held steady throughout the past week, colder weather is on the way. Arguably the most affected by the impending winter weather is the unhoused population of Kansas City.

The Downtown Council, an organization of downtown business and property owners, is looking to the City and Jackson County to fund a proposal to establish a camp for unhoused people on the site of the former Chouteau Courts housing project, which was demolished earlier this year, northwest of Independence Avenue and the Paseo.

The Downtown Council is estimating $250,000 would build out the physical camp with 25 tents and two staff on-site around the clock for the full proposed timeline of the project, according to Jared Campbell, CID Resident Engagement Project Manager for the Downtown Council. Additional funding would help provide better resources on-site, including for extreme cold weather conditions.

“We are seeking funding from the federal CARES Act dollars that were allocated to the county,” Campbell said. “These dollars need to be spent by the end of the year. We are also expecting either the county and/or the city to receive more CARES Act dollars specifically to help with the homeless population since the governor called a special legislative session that started on November 5. We would also welcome any funding from the business or civic community.”

The Northeast is already visibly occupied by unhoused people. Nearly weekly, a combination of social services, Kansas City Police Department (KCPD), Public Works and the Independence Avenue Community Improvement District (CID) are cleaning out transient camps and offering services.

While some downtowners may consider the location part of the “greater downtown area,” barriers are both physical, like highways, and social.

Various entities are currently involved in narrowing down future redevelopment plans for the site, which is owned by the Housing Authority of Kansas City (HAKC), along with other nearby projects like the reconfiguration of the nearby intersection of Independence Avenue and the Paseo. According to Campbell, there would be no long-term interference for the future redevelopment of Chouteau Courts.

Residents of the Northeast neighborhoods, and nearby Columbus Park, have a laundry list of concerns. At the top of that list? Nobody asked them.

Leslie Caplan, a longtime resident of the Scarritt neighborhood, is generally in favor of such an idea, but raises issue with this particular plan, namely the location. On Friday, Caplan spoke solely as a resident.

“In my experience of living in Scarritt for all these years, 10 years, and working here even before that, I don’t think that yet another transient camp within spitting distance of our neighborhood is in our best interest,” Caplan said. “We are constantly fighting the issues that they present to us – filth, defecating in our yards, leaving their debris, stealing – we don’t need that, yet again, in our community.”

Caplan said she believes the people who the Downtown Council is trying to move have not lost their homes, but rather are transients who prefer the lifestyle and do not stay in shelters because of the rules and expectations.

“I foresee this as another ploy by the Downtown Council to get rid of people who are probably wandering through their streets and disturbing their residences, and potentially affecting the income from their rental property, the apartments and all that, and so they figured that they would find a place more on the outskirts of downtown, which is literally across the street from our neighborhood,” Caplan said.

Referencing an article by CityScene KC that said “it’s close to downtown and not located near a dense residential area,” she said, “That is offensive to me. What do they think of the 34,000 residents that literally live across the Paseo from this proposed placement?”

Campbell said it was unfortunate the article was published last Friday since the Downtown Council is still in the process of meeting with government officials and human service providers to even see if a camp idea is feasible and if so, if it should go at Chouteau Courts or somewhere else.

“The Downtown Council is not the only group working on this issue,” he said. “We have heard of other groups looking at areas deeper in Northeast and along the riverfront.”

Caplan observes the Northeast as already being “at capacity” when it comes to transient populations.

“All you have to do is drive down the street and see all the people on all the corners sleeping, or begging, or throwing out their trash and those aren’t upstanding, tax-paying citizens,” Caplan said.

Other residents suggested parking garages located downtown as temporary shelters since many stand empty due to employees working from home. Concerns also included the property’s lack of pavement, which has the potential to create a mud pit when winter weather hits.

“The location they are proposing is not appropriate, and it is not appropriate for them to have done this and not even bothered to talk to the neighborhood leaderships,” Caplan said. “If they’re not going to open it to all the residents, at least give a heads up to the boards of Scarritt and Pendleton and Columbus Park, and all the other neighborhoods. Don’t try and push this through thinking we’ll cave.”

According to the Pendleton Heights Neighborhood Association Board, as of Friday they had not been contacted by the Downtown Council, HAKC, the City, the Parks Department or KCPD to discuss the idea. They learned about the effort Friday from Caplan and said they will review the matter before releasing a statement sometime next week.

“We have a long list of organizations that need outreach including neighborhoods in the Northeast, Kansas City University and Columbus Park,” Campbell said. “A temporary, sanctioned homeless camp, no matter the location, is one potential solution to help what is a humanitarian crisis for homeless individuals who have nowhere else to go due to limited capacity in the overnight shelters.”

Deb Walker, owner of Harold’s Drive In at 1337 Admiral Blvd., said she would be satisfied if the site is policed 24/7 and the people living there have garbage disposal, are held accountable for their actions and are monitored daily.

“Sure, go ahead, but if you don’t have the funds to do that then no, you don’t need to be doing that in the Northeast area where we’re trying to go the other way, not backwards,” Walker said. “They need to get a handle on the homeless, stop giving them so much and there won’t be so many of them. Kansas City makes it easy for the homeless because our hearts are so big.”

She said the Downtown Council would feel differently if they had to see the camp and work around it every single day.

“Where was the community when this proposal was discussed? There’s a need for housing the homeless, but come on [Downtown Council], you can do better than this, right?” asked Bobbi Baker, president and CEO of the Northeast Chamber of Commerce and Independence Avenue Community Improvement District manager. “Talk to us, the community that lives and does business here.”

For Baker, much of her job is supporting the businesses trying to grow in the area.

“In the 10 years and tens of thousands of hours that community stakeholders have been working on the Paseo Gateway/Choice Neighborhood Transformation plan, I don’t believe that I have ever seen the Downtown Council attend one of those sessions,” Baker said. “So I was very surprised to see in City Scene that they are proposing a homeless encampment on the property that the community stakeholders just worked with [Urban Land Institute] to determine development ideas and community needs. Not once was an encampment discussed.”

“The camp would not be bringing more homeless people into the area,” Campbell said. “The fact that downtown and the Northeast are already struggling with this issue is exactly why groups like the Downtown Council have looked to other cities and seen the practice of creating a temporary, sanctioned campsite,” Campbell said.

The Downtown Council knows there have been issues with trash, fires, public defecation, etc. from the homeless population both Downtown and in the Northeast. He said he believes those issues will only get worse throughout the winter and with the Coronavirus pandemic.

“The overnight shelters are operating at a reduced capacity due to the pandemic,” Campbell said. “They are full almost every night. Not every homeless person is a bad person looking to commit a crime. A camp would allow those that want help, but have nowhere to go to safely have a place to sleep, eat, shower, use the bathroom, dispose of trash, etc. This is simply one idea to help offer a small number of existing homeless a dignified and humane way to survive the winter.”

Campbell said as with any homeless initiative, the ultimate goal would be to allow the unhoused individuals to start getting help from the human service community that would lead to a long-term housing solution.

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