Published May 5th, 2020 at 10:11 AM
Kar Woo carries two phones. Both buzz incessantly these days — one from people seeking his help, the other from friends concerned about his welfare.
The calls for assistance come from police officers, hospital nurses, shelter operators and agents at Kansas City’s Greyhound bus terminal. Anyone with a lost soul on their hands and the COVID-19 virus on their minds.
Like many other people, Woo is supposed to be working from home while the virus remains a threat. He isn’t doing a good job of that, which explains the calls of concern.
On a recent morning, a Shawnee police officer was on the line. An inpatient mental health facility had discharged a patient early. He was found wandering the streets, angry and irrational. The man, in his mid-30s, was from out of town and had no family here. He wasn’t safe and neither was the community. The officer was unsure where to turn.
Woo could have handled the situation by phone. But, as he explained, he was close by at his Overland Park home, so it just made sense to put on his mask and set out to meet the officer and the new client.
This is what he does. As executive director of Artists Helping the Homeless, Woo specializes in finding refuge for individuals at rock bottom. His clients are homeless, mentally ill, addicted or stranded.
Sometimes the best he can offer them is a meal. Other times he finds them temporary shelter, knowing he is likely to encounter them again. In the best of circumstances, he is able to change a life. Graduates of Woo’s programs have moved on to stable jobs and relationships. Some have used a scholarship fund he administers to secure college degrees.
Woo’s job is harder since the Kansas City region went on COVID-19 lockdown. Shelters are full and detox centers and mental health units are reluctant to accept new patients with a virus lurking. Artists Helping the Homeless has cut back sharply on transporting clients — a key part of its usual mission.
“The calls we receive are more desperate and urgent,” Woo said. In one four-day stretch in April, which he described on Facebook, he collaborated with seven separate hospitals to find places for discharged patients. Two of his clients had been assaulted in their homes. He worked with a patient in a wheelchair and an inmate just released from an out-of-state prison.
“It breaks my heart to have to tell them there is no reasonable placement during this COVID-19 crisis,” Woo wrote.
For weeks, he had pleaded with foundations, churches and charities for funds to rent a wing of hotel rooms to house people who hadn’t tested positive for COVID-19, but were at risk to contract it. At the time the Shawnee police called, his entreaties had been unsuccessful.
“People are on the street and very vulnerable,” Woo said. “But the pushback I’m getting is that funds and services are needed for people who already have COVID-19.”
The situation in Shawnee had a good outcome. Artists Helping the Homeless has a contract with Harbor Lights, an addiction recovery shelter in Kansas City, Kansas, run by the Salvation Army. Woo and the staff there decided that, since the man had been inside a facility for a week, and unlikely to have contracted the virus, he could be admitted.
A few days later, Woo would receive even better news. The Kansas City Regional COVID-19 Response and Recovery Fund — an emergency program created by foundations and other groups — accepted his application in its second round of grants. Artists Helping the Homeless will receive $50,000 to shelter up to 20 at-risk persons at a time in a hotel. They will be off the streets, and eligible for medical and supportive services that Woo makes available to other clients.
“I’m so happy I could cry,” Woo said, minutes after he received his confirmation email. “Because I tried and tried and tried.”
The grant marked another achievement for Woo’s nonprofit, which he calls “the safety net for the safety net.”
Artists Helping the Homeless got its start by accident.
Woo, an immigrant from Hong Kong, was operating an art gallery near the Country Club Plaza. While taking breaks to walk his dalmation around Mill Creek Park, he connected with many of the homeless people who frequent the neighborhood. Woo, who has college degrees in counseling and psychology, started selling pieces of art to help them with food and shelter.
Eventually leaders at St. Luke’s Health System got wind of his work. They asked Woo if he would take on the full-time task of finding better options for addicted and mentally unstable people than the hospital emergency room. Woo agreed. He now also receives funding from North Kansas City Hospital, and other public and private sources.
Artists Helping the Homeless operates recovery houses in Kansas City and Lawrence, as well as a midtown apartment building where recovering people live more independently. Its fleet of colorfully decorated vans, which proclaim “Be the Change,” can be spotted around the region.
“It’s not the kind of street ministry it was in the beginning,” said Dean Katerndahl, a retired director at Mid-America Regional Council, who has been on the board of Artists Helping the Homeless since its creation. “It’s become much more full service.”
The nonprofit, which runs on an annual budget of close to $1 million, employs house managers, van drivers and case managers — some of whom are former clients.
But Artists Helping the Homeless still revolves around Woo, a wispy, long-haired gentleman who declines to disclose his age, turning up day and night in difficult places to take on intractable problems. He can become irritated by bureaucracies, but never by clients.
“He comes from a place of compassion and empathy,” said Susan Whitmore, CEO of First Call, which provides addiction treatment and prevention services in the metropolitan area. “That’s really the basis of his practice. He is probably the most unfailingly loving person I’ve ever met.”
One of the many places that has Woo’s number on speed dial is Kansas City’s Greyhound bus station.
“We actually go to Greyhound every week. There’s so many people stranded in Kansas City,” Woo said.
On a recent call to the bus station, he found a frightened woman. She had escaped from an abusive partner, a truck driver, who had forced her on the road with him.
“That lady’s situation was so sad,” Woo said. “She was just sobbing.”
He purchased a bus ticket for the woman and connected her with a domestic violence shelter in the state where she lives.
Woo said it bothered him that he had to speak with the woman through a mask.
“It feels so impersonal,” he said.
Woo’s board is aware that the executive director is out and about. Katerndahl said the members spend a fair amount of time worrying about Woo in the best of circumstances.
“He’s definitely unorthodox,” Katerhdahl said. “He’ll drive right up to the cliff and the board’s job is to keep him from driving over the edge. He’ll do anything to help people.”
By the start of this week, Woo had found a hotel in a Kansas City suburb to shelter people who otherwise would be on the streets. He chose a suburban location because he wanted his clients to be removed from ready drug supplies and bad influences. His mind was racing with the services he could provide and the lives he could impact, even in the midst of a pandemic.
“I’m not giving up,” he said. “I’m stubborn.”
Flatland contributor Barbara Shelly is a freelance writer based in Kansas City.