Kansas City’s homeless union has solutions for the city. Here is what they want

·4 min read

Earlier this year, near the steps of City Hall, leaders with the Kansas City Homeless Union laid out a list of demands.

James Shelby, 60, who goes by Qadhafi, sat across from the mayor and Councilwoman Ryana Parks-Shaw at a picnic bench between the statue of Abraham Lincoln and City Hall’s south steps.

Qadhafi, the leader of the homeless union, was flanked by members of KC Tenants as he told Lucas about issues they’ve experienced at the encampment. He reiterated the union’s demands: homes, jobs, water and a seat at the table where decisions are being made.

Months later, union leaders say their demands have not yet been met in full.

Here is a look at what the union is asking for, and what the city has in the works.

The union’s demands

Homes: The union argues that the millions of dollars spent annually on shelters and services could instead be invested in converting vacant and city-owned property into homes for those without houses.

Jobs: Union leaders have suggested that members of the houseless community could be hired to help renovate and ready the vacant and city-owned properties for ownership.

Water: In light of the pandemic in particular, the union is asking the city for access to clean water. This would include access to showers, bathrooms and hand-washing stations.

A seat at the table: As the city makes decisions and passes legislation related to homelessness, the union asks for a seat at the table where decisions are being made, so all future decisions are informed by someone experiencing homelessness in real time.

The city’s efforts

In the past year, Kansas City has invested $8.5 million in city funds and in COVID relief funding into addressing homelessness and housing insecurity in light of the pandemic, which has left many more people to face financial uncertainty. Here is the full list of initiatives by the city in the past year.

  • Creation of the Houseless Task Force: The task force, the first of its kind in Kansas City, was established by the city council in January with the hopes of developing long-term policies and solutions related to homelessness.

  • Strategic plan and community needs assessment: The city council in late August voted to direct City Manager Brian Platt to finish an assessment of the ways taxpayer dollars are currently being spent on service providers. The study is meant to inform a strategic plan — due about six months later — for addressing needs of those experiencing homelessness, including prevention and intervention.

  • Tiny home village: In the plan’s first phase, the city hopes to provide at least 140 beds across 65 “pallet homes.” The transitional housing village would include on-site social services, health care and caseworkers available at any time of the day.

  • The Land Bank of KCMO: The land bank is selling 111 vacant and abandoned homes for $1. These buildings are being sold to organizations that will then renovate them and rent living spaces out to people either in the lowest income brackets or who are experiencing houselessness.

  • More housing: The city is working with private developers to create more affordable units in new developments. The city also created an affordable housing trust fund and a standalone housing department to focus on tenants, the unhoused and affordable housing. Maggie Green, media relations manager for the city, said the city is also hoping to repurpose unused facilities, such as hotels, into housing for those who are unsheltered.

  • Vision for Housing Plan: The city is asking for community feedback on the 38-page plan.

Previous efforts by the city:

  • The Bartle Hall Warming Center: The emergency overnight shelter in operation from late January through mid-March, gave temporary shelter to 307 people a night, on average.

  • The Cold Weather Family Housing Program: The program gave families who lost their jobs and then their homes in the pandemic an opportunity for rapid re-housing at a secure site. The program, which lasted from January to May, served dozens of families.

  • The 90-day hotel stay, an emergency program: The city provided hotel rooms and social services to almost 400 people who were living outside of shelters. The emergency program ended after 90 days, despite requests for an extension from members of the houseless community.

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