Published October 25th, 2021 at 3:01 PM
Throughout the past several weeks, we’ve received numerous questions about housing, homelessness and what steps can be taken to help folks who are unhoused.
In this brief guide, we’ll help illuminate lessons learned from our team’s reporting and provide a list of resources for friends, family and anyone who needs to know where to turn. While this is helpful, it isn’t exhaustive. If you’re a provider or case worker who would like to contribute to this guide, and you:
In the most recent episode of the Flatland show, our panelists answer this question, sent to us by John M. via our public engagement initiative curiousKC:
Provided the individual is not in a crisis situation, the best thing to do when approached is to have a conversation. If you can’t offer money, or don’t feel comfortable doing so, carrying granola bars or small snacks with you can be a good thing to offer.
You can also ask them if there is anything else they need. Maybe you can’t give them cash but you can help with something else.
A guide with Medium also suggests giving your time and listening to personal stories. Being unhoused can be an isolating experience, but having the opportunity to speak with someone can help alleviate these feelings, even if just for a moment.
Houston DeFoe, president of Merging KC, said he often hears police or security calls for non-violent, unhoused individuals seeking shelter. Arresting these folks doesn’t get them the care they need.
“People don’t know who to call for these people so they just call 911,” DeFoe said. “Or they call a security guard or somebody and just say, ‘Hey, come take this person,’ or ‘They need to be arrested,’ or this and that. That’s not really what they need at all. They need help.”
Kansas City Police Department officer and public information officer Donna Drake said the department has 12 community interaction officers who work “hand-in-hand with social workers and CIT officers.”
In an email, she added: “We will always send officers to 911/non-emergency calls first to ascertain a situation is safe prior to our social workers following up.”
If the individual is in a crisis situation or becomes increasingly agitated, there are a few options. First, try calling the Kansas City Police Department’s non-emergency line (816) 234-5111 and request a crisis intervention officer. They’re trained in de-escalation techniques and, many times, folks who are unhoused may have untreated mental health issues.
Advocates for people who are unhoused prefer that folks be connected with caseworkers and social workers who can help them navigate the crisis moment. When possible, try asking the person if there’s someone they trust that you should call first.
If the situation is not threatening, however, a conversation can go a long way.
Ask them if there is anything they need. And if their presence on your property is somehow burdening you, try explaining and working to find a solution that benefits you both.
DeFoe said the Kansas City Fire Department has started a specialized force to respond to “suspicious person” calls in encampments or for unhoused individuals. Rather than send the normal brigade to a 911 call, it’s conserving first responder resources by sending out a smaller group.
The Community Action Partnership of Greater St. Joseph recently started a program with the police department to send caseworkers out to non-emergency calls rather than sending the police.
Whitney Lanning, executive director of the partnership, said law enforcement was getting a lot of calls about individuals who weren’t breaking the law or doing anything inappropriate, but were really just loitering.
One of the community health workers will go out to the scene and help get the individual to a care facility or shelter rather than just being run off by the police.
While the partnership is great, Lanning said what would be even better is if people weren’t calling the police on individuals who are on the streets. So long as the individual isn’t in a crisis situation, her advice is to talk to them as you would a neighbor.
“If you could just have a conversation I think that most people would find that these are just regular people,” Lanning said. “They’re people that want to do better and have, through different life experiences, fallen on hard times. So I think just having a conversation and having a decent dose of humanity will go a long way.”
There are a lot of reasons someone might take shelter in a park or other public space. Sometimes shelters are full, or not the best fit for people with varying needs. Avoid assuming that someone in this situation is looking for shelter resources.
In an article about talking to unhoused individuals, Nation Swell emphasized the importance of steering clear of unsolicited advice. Not everyone is poised to receive advice about getting a job or housing while in the stressful situation of being unhoused.
If an individual does approach you looking for help, the Greater Kansas City Coalition to End Homelessness (GKCCEH) has a list of local resources. Bookmark the tab on your phone and help them find resources nearby.
According to the GKCCEH, people who are experiencing homelessness face basic but unforeseen challenges that can complicate their pathway toward getting help.
Talk to the person and treat them as a fellow human being. You never know how far a kind word and a smile can go.
Jamal Collier, a resident at the Lotus Care House who was unhoused for some time and a guest on the Flatland show, said the community needs more compassion.
“I think if we had a lot more compassion in our community, it would help a lot of things,” Collier said. “Showing compassion and literally becoming a fan of every homeless person, (because) they have nobody who cares. So if they had at least one fan, who knows. It could start a wildfire and everybody could feel that way about this person because one person saw potential in them.”
Looking ahead: Flatland is looking into budget reports from the Kansas City Police Department to determine the cost of emergency dispatches related to unhoused individuals as part of our ongoing coverage of the housing crisis.
Vicky Diaz-Camacho covers community affairs for Kansas City PBS. Cami Koons covers rural affairs for Kansas City PBS in cooperation with Report for America. The work of our Report for America corps members is made possible, in part, through the generous support of the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation.