City Council said no to this idea for Kansas City’s homeless. What’s the alternative?

Charlie Riedel/Associated Press file photo
·3 min read

Kansas City has a homelessness problem. But we’ve known that for a while.

Illegal and unsanitary encampments are the new shelters, officials said during a recent City Council committee meeting. It’s inhumane to allow homeless people to continue to live in such conditions without suitable housing options.

Elected officials say they want to tackle the city’s homelessness problem. From our vantage point, we find that difficult to believe. Tiny homes and refurbished hotels are promising starts. Further inaction is not good public policy.

The finance, governance and public safety committee on June 29 shot down a proposal by 3rd District Councilwoman Melissa Robinson that would authorize City Manager Brian Platt to determine the cost for low-barrier emergency shelters.

Low-barrier shelters are less restrictive than traditional shelters. Individuals are not subjected to curfews, background checks or other mandatory requirements in other shelters. Qualified outreach workers help folks find solutions to meet their long-term housing needs.

Kansas City has none.

Councilwoman Katheryn Shields, committee chair, asked what the comprehensive, long-term strategy is. “We shouldn’t do this piecemeal,” she said.

Recommendations from the Mayor’s Houseless Task Force aren’t expected until August. It’s likely autumn would come and go before any movement would begin, officials said. But what happens in the meantime?

Task force chair Ryana Parks-Shaw, District 5 councilwoman, spoke in favor of a short-term housing plan. Colleagues were less enthusiastic. That’s too bad, because there is a critical need right now.

Inflation has financially devastated low-income families. The number of individuals struggling with mental health issues and substance abuse problems has grown since the pandemic started more than two years ago. Those afflicted with such challenges often end up on the streets. Under no circumstances can people safely sleep outdoors.

In Kansas City, the situation could get worse.

Missouri Gov. Mike Parson signed into law a bill that essentially criminalizes homelessness, making it a felony to sleep on state-owned land. Violators could be fined or jailed.

Tent cities, illegal on city property, have become the norm. Some popped up in protest months ago in front of City Hall and in the Westport area. After sweeps, the encampments relocated into wooded areas.

On any given night, as many as 1,800 people in Kansas City are without permanent shelter, according to the Greater Kansas City Coalition to End Homelessness.

After the freezing deaths of two homeless people, a proposal to turn city parks into homeless camps with social services was nixed by Jack Holland, president of the parks board, city officials told us.

Since March, a planned project to renovate vacant homes for the unhoused has stalled under the committee chaired by Shields. Robinson sponsored the measure allocating $700,000 from the city’s housing trust fund to pay for the rehab.

Last year, New Orleans officials invested $8 million to expand its homeless facilities. A low-barrier shelter for men and women grew to 346 beds, the city announced then. The facility is inside what was once a Veteran Administration Hospital, providing meals, support services and a place to sleep.

Why can’t Kansas City do the same?