In January 2020, more than 580,000 people experienced homelessness in America. In Kansas City, the number is estimated to be at least 2,000.
Experts and advocates say that while no official nationwide count was taken in 2021, the number has likely only grown as the pandemic ransacked people’s jobs, health, stability and lives.
It is not uncommon to encounter someone who appears to be homeless in Kansas City. Advocates encourage making eye contact and saying hello, rather than pretending they don’t exist, as many people do.
Nellie Ann McCool, a community advocate who visits with her “friends on the street” often to make sure they have what they need to survive, has watched over the past year plus as higher eviction and jobless rates leave more and more people in dire situations.
McCool suggested asking the following three questions:
“Do you have somewhere you can go to get away from the elements?“ If they know of a safe place to go, she encouraged offering to help get them a ride there, whether it’s to a shelter, warming center, a cooling center or with a family or friend.
“If there’s nowhere to go, do you have the essentials to keep safe?” In the winter, if they need more propane, pick some up for them, she said. If they’re using candles, get them a fire extinguisher. Ask if they need more warm clothes or blankets. Even cardboard can be helpful in insulating the inside of a tent from wind.
“Are you hungry?” If so, ask if they need food. She also recommended reaching out to social circles to see if anyone else can help, too.
More ways to help
The sheer number of people, including families, veterans and youth, living without homes can feel overwhelming. Thankfully, there are many different ways to help.
The National Coalition for the Homeless advises that giving money directly to someone asking for help is a personal decision.
Sometimes people can be hesitant to give cash, since they fear they could be supporting someone’s addiction. According to the coalition, the money will more likely be used for food, transportation, clothing, childcare or a plethora of other needs. The coalition also suggests keeping restaurant gift certificates, water bottles, fruit and granola bars to give to those asking for help.
The coalition recommends the following steps for those who want to help bring more resources to those experiencing homelessness.
It can be helpful to contact local shelters and organizations ahead of making a donation, as their needs can change from season to season. A full list of local shelters can be found here.
Clean, gently-used clothing, including shoes, socks, clothing for job interviews, winter coats and gloves.
Children’s items, including clothing, diapers, toys and books.
Furniture for shelters and for those transitioning into homes.
Personal items, including hygiene products like soap, feminine products, toothbrushes, toothpaste and cosmetics.
Books: while everyone has access to public libraries, many shelters also have their own bookshelves.
Monetary donations can often be made to shelters and organizations.
Help register those experiencing homelessness to vote.
Learn about the nonprofits, shelters, local leaders, politicians, activists and community members advocating for an end to homelessness.
Use language that gives dignity to those experiencing homelessness by using “people first” expressions. For example, “people experiencing homeless” is preferred over “the homeless.” Some prefer the phrase “people experiencing houselessness.”
Volunteer at a local shelter or food bank.
Volunteer with Habitat for Humanity, a nonprofit that helps build affordable housing.
Invite those experiencing homelessness to community events.
Share your stories and involvement with family and friends, and invite them to help, too.
The coalition’s full list of ways to help can be found here.