Kansas City needs these tiny shelters, so let’s not let scare tactics get in the way

·4 min read

Sometimes even imperfect options are the perfect place to start. That’s the case with the “tiny homes” project to house up to 200 of Kansas Citians experiencing homelessness in small temporary cabins.

It’s imperfect because it’s another temporary solution to a chronic humanitarian crisis that has grown acute. But it has worked elsewhere, as a stopgap measure, and could work here, too.

A City Council housing committee approved the proposed $2.7 million “Verge: A Pallet Community” project on Wednesday. A day later, the full council delayed final action on it until this week.

Councilwoman Katheryn Shields strenuously objects to another proposed ordinance waiving all zoning restrictions for city-approved homeless encampments. That ordinance, approved on a 3-2 vote Wednesday by the council’s Neighborhood Planning and Development Committee, gives the city administration what amounts to a temporary-use permit to establish such a homeless community for up to 240 days on any land it owns or leases, regardless of current zoning or what’s nearby.

In reality, the “pallet community” appears headed for a city lot at 700 E. 12th Street, or one of a couple of other options in downtown parks, so we don’t share Shields’ fears about what this will look like.

But the ordinance says such a homeless community must be only 25 feet or more from a residential property, and some opponents seem to be reading that as “25 feet from my door.”

“It’s open zoning citywide for homeless camps that will be determined administratively with no appeal anywhere,” Shields said. “They’re going to treat siting a homeless shelter, with these semipermanent pallet houses, as if it’s the same as a garage sale.”

Not quite. Councilman Dan Fowler, one of the three to vote in favor of the zoning ordinance, said it became necessary because no one would agree to allowing a homeless community nearby.

“Every conversation starts out with, ‘Well, we really support this idea … but don’t put it here.’ It’s a problem.” The ordinance waiving zoning “gives us some flexibility on where to put it. I thought it was necessary in order to get this up and going in a fairly short period of time.”

He’s right about that.

‘Not in my backyard’ just moves homeless around

You know how we know that these sheds won’t be located in residential neighborhoods? For one thing because we feel confident that current city officials would like the option of being reelected.

And opponents have yet to explain what they suggest doing instead.

“It just lifts all restrictions on where they put these houses,” says Councilwoman Teresa Loar, who joined Councilman Brandon Ellington in voting against it in committee. “We have enough problems with ‘not in my backyard’ stuff. I can’t imagine what would happen with this (ordinance). I just think we need to be real careful with what we do here. I think we need to plan a little bit.”

Which is what’s happening now. And as Fowler points out, it’s because of the “not in my backyard stuff” that it has to be done this way or not at all.

Nearly 100 of the 64-square-foot shelters would not only house 200 currently homeless residents, but would create a makeshift community in which social services can reach them easily, since providers will be on-site 24/7. They almost certainly need to be downtown so that people who live there can have easy access to transportation and, hopefully, job opportunities.

The cabins can go up within weeks and house folks for nearly a year — during which time the city must find more permanent housing solutions.

Phil Glynn, 2019 mayoral candidate and co-owner of Travois, a firm that finances and supports housing and economic development projects in Native American communities, sees it as a positive step, and so do we.

“I’m glad that the mayor and council are looking at people who need to be housed as people,” Glynn said. “This is not just an abstract problem. These are families with kids. These are people, many of whom are suffering because of the pandemic/recession. That doesn’t make them any less important than any other resident of Kansas City.”

Again, if more Kansas Citians felt this way, there would have been no need for the ordinance.

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