Published April 14th, 2021 at 12:30 PM
A week ago, unhoused people occupying the lawn of Kansas City, Missouri, City Hall and those living at Camp 6ixx in Westport feared the city would force them to leave, even though there was nowhere else to go.
Now unhoused people in Kansas City are closer to accessing short-term shelter and possibly long-term housing.
After meetings with the Kansas City Homeless Union, city officials are taking steps to create solutions that address the needs of the city’s unhoused population and meet the union’s core demands: access to homes, jobs and a seat at the table.
For Homeless Union leader James Qadhafi Shelby, who goes by Qadhafi, it’s a sign the city is finally listening to the unhoused community. He met with Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas for four days straight starting April 5, the day the Homeless Union anticipated a camp sweep.
“To be seen is to be heard,” Qadhafi said. “So they hear us loud and clear.”
The Kansas City Homeless Union first formed in January following organizing work by Qadhafi with housing justice groups in Kansas City. The occupation of City Hall began that month as a demonstration to bring the union’s demands to the front door of the city’s elected officials.
“I do see progress, I do feel progress,” Qadhafi said following a closed-door meeting April 7. “That’s why I was there.”
When asked during an April 9 news conference, Lucas did not explicitly commit to stopping future camp sweeps — Camp 6ixx in Westport was cleared on April 10. He said the city’s overarching goal is to find sustainable solutions to challenges facing unhoused people.
“I think that’s why we’re talking about things like hotels,” he said during an April 9 news conference, in response to a question asked by The Beacon. “That’s why we’re talking about things like actual long-term solutions for how we can address the issues.”
After meetings between Qadhafi, Lucas and other elected officials — like 5th District Councilwoman Ryana Parks-Shaw, who represents the district encompassing neighborhoods east of Troost Avenue in south Kansas City — the group landed on several long- and short-term initiatives to better serve people without permanent shelter.
One short-term proposal directs City Manager Brian Platt to create a plan that expands the city’s current contract with hotels and motels to provide rooms for unhoused people. The contract now can serve up to 500 people who may be uncomfortable in a shelter or if shelters are full for up to 90 days. This ordinance was passed and adopted by the City Council during its April 8 session. It’s paid for through funding from the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
That same day, buses from Hope Faith began transporting individuals at the camp outside City Hall to a hotel. So far, 250 unhoused people have chosen this option since it was announced April 8.
Lucas said the city is making sure everybody at the Homeless Union encampment in front of City Hall has a place to go and their belongings are protected. By April 9, most of the tents that had dotted the lawn were gone, and unhoused individuals were either taken to a shelter or set up in a hotel room.
“Here’s where we can start,” Lucas said during an April 8 news conference. “We have hotel and motel opportunities, but how do we manage to expand so people can feel safe? How can we make it so that we’re trying to create as many opportunities for everybody?”
Lucas visited Camp 6ixx in Westport, a few miles south of the City Hall encampment, on April 9 to conduct outreach about this hotel initiative. Most residents were relocated over the weekend and provided temporary shelter. But on April 10, with some tents still set up on the lawn, city services still conducted a sweep of the camp.
Morgan Said, a spokesperson with the mayor’s office, said Kansas City Public Works was cleaning up trash left over from the unhoused people who vacated Camp 6ixx and were taken to a hotel.
Another option for shelter for the unhoused community would involve collaboration among the mayor, neighborhood groups and the City Council to identify an outdoor space for unhoused people to live if they choose not to stay in a hotel or shelters. The goal would be to situate this space near essential resources and amenities like showers and toilets.
The City Council passed an ordinance in January to assess the costs and feasibility of using city parks for creating a permanent shelter. The report is due back by the end of this month.
In nearby Lawrence, Kansas, the city opened an outdoor camp for unhoused people last November. The city-run campsite provides people with tents, beds, electricity, storage and ceramic space heaters.
According to the latest Point-in-Time count conducted by the Greater Kansas City Coalition to End Homelessness in January 2020, 1,733 adults and children were experiencing homelessness in and around Kansas City, Missouri, including Lee’s Summit, Independence and Jackson County. About 163 were counted as chronically homeless.
Since the pandemic began, updated numbers on those experiencing homelessness both on the local and national level have not yet been released. But Marqueia Watson with the Greater Kansas City Coalition to End Homelessness said the organization has seen a spike in reports of homelessness over the past year.
The COVID-19 pandemic has led to more health risks to unhoused people. Larger metropolitan cities in the U.S., like San Francisco, have seen increases in the number of unhoused people living in tents throughout the city. Last spring, as the Bay Area enacted the country’s first regional shutdown orders, San Francisco officials saw an increase in deaths of uhoused people.
Other major cities are continuing camp sweeps despite guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to allow people who are unsheltered or living in an encampment to remain where they are. The CDC guidance adds that clearing encampments can “cause people to disperse throughout the community and break connections with service providers,” which could increase the spread of COVID-19.
In Los Angeles, officials conducted a sweep of what became the fastest-growing encampment for the city’s unhoused population. The encampment was located in the heart of downtown Los Angeles and grew into a community of over 200 people by the time it was swept in late March.
Two long-term policies negotiated between the Homeless Union and Kansas City officials focus on increasing housing solutions and access to jobs.
One of these policies includes a new resolution, co-sponsored by Lucas and Councilwoman Parks-Shaw, that would amend the city’s Land Bank program to provide stable, long-term homes to unhoused people. The legislation would prioritize providing the homes at 30% of the average median income, estimated at $400 in monthly rental costs, for at least 20 years.
It would also ensure that a person or family’s source of income is not used as a basis for discrimination, like if a family is paying rent with a housing voucher. The ordinance would push for collaboration with neighborhood groups to avoid creating concentrations of poverty.
Within this initiative, Parks-Shaw will begin working to expand the Land Bank into a community land trust model that would include more homes and maintain affordability. The city manager’s office has 60 days to recommend how to transfer out properties in the Land Bank, which takes vacant properties in the city and sells them to people or organizations who will repair and renovate the property.
Another long-term policy addresses the Kansas City Homeless Union’s demand for jobs. This ordinance, introduced April 8, would direct the city government to study the number of unhoused individuals in the Kansas City workforce and examine the barriers to employment.
Both pieces of legislation have been referred to the Neighborhood Planning and Development Committee and require approval by the City Council. The Neighborhood Planning and Development Committee will discuss both ordinances during its weekly meeting at 1:30 p.m. April 14.
“Our stronger interest is in actually looking at ways we can build life-sustaining projects, as opposed to using heavy-handed approaches, or just looking to move a problem from one place to another,” Lucas said.
Jenay Manley, a leader with housing justice group KC Tenants, said these initiatives are a reflection of the Homeless Union’s power. Manley is particularly interested in the long-term solutions to provide affordable housing and access to jobs. If the union’s demands are met, she said, that’s a sign of historic change.
“I think that that change will only come if the people who are in the KC Homeless Union are at the table every step of the way, with every decision that’s made,” she said. “That’s how we make change. It comes from the people who are closest to the problem having the solutions.”
Qadhafi said he will now be holding elected officials accountable to their promises, to make sure the Homeless Union isn’t being “hoodwinked.”
“We deserve a break,” Qadhafi said of the Homeless Union. “We deserve our city, our City Council, to do better by us. … We wanna be treated humanely.”
Celisa Calacal covers economics and civic engagement issues for The Beacon, an online news outlet based in Kansas City focused on local, in-depth journalism in the public interest.