Yes, Kansas City has a housing problem, but roofs over heads won’t fix homelessness

Eric Burger
·3 min read

A lot of people think homelessness can be solved by simply moving everyone who is homeless into safe housing.

On the surface, the idea is an attractive one. It promises to end the need for police intervention and ambulances handling overdoses and mental health emergencies. It suggests it would increase public safety and provide a quick solution for a difficult problem.

Of course, we all agree that Kansas City needs more low-income housing. The city could also use more housing and services for extremely disabled individuals.

Unfortunately, some people living on the streets just aren’t ready for housing. Without effective mental health and substance abuse recovery assistance, they would just be kicked out of housing and end up on the streets again.

A recent study by the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness shows the majority of unsheltered homeless people is made up of the physically ill (84%), mentally ill (78%) and chronically addicted (75%). Fifty percent self-report that they have all three conditions.

When they move into programs or shelters, those numbers drop dramatically, but convincing them to choose to leave the streets is difficult. Many who left Bartle Hall when the weather warmed this year didn’t seek the help offered at places such as Shelter KC. Most returned to outdoor encampments despite the opportunity for safe shelter and services.

Short-term shelters like the one set up at Bartle Hall are focused on disaster relief: saving someone from freezing to death on the street. That’s good. But it is also temporary. Change needs to be permanent. People shouldn’t be left staggering from disaster to disaster.

Simply putting homeless people inside assumes their problems wouldn’t accompany them into a subsidized apartment. And while it may seem like a practical way to reduce homeless numbers, we must remember that people aren’t numbers — they are individuals. Along with a roof, there must be a plan to address the root causes of their predicament. A one-size-fits-all solution isn’t the answer.

Providing safe housing is only part of the solution to homelessness, because no individual can thrive in constant crisis. Putting a roof over the homeless problem does not answer the basic question: what comes next.

At Shelter KC, our experience tells us that unless we address the root causes of people’s homelessness, they will just boomerang back onto the streets. We do triage: We deal with their worst problems first. We get them off the street, assist them in getting sober, help them stabilize their often-chaotic lives, address their educational and job skill needs and help them find employment, permanent housing and friendships. Then we encourage them to give back to their community.

Give us a person and we’ll create a personal renewal plan. Even during the COVID-19 crisis, we have gotten people into recovery programs that map their way out of their predicament. The goal is new jobs and family reunions. The road back begins with a commitment to change and to work on their problems. But ultimately, the gospel is the fuel that propels true life transformation.

Kansas City benefits from having many drug abuse recovery and mental health services available. Shelter KC encourages Kansas City’s government and residents to support those services which recognize that each homeless individual has inherent worth.

One size doesn’t fit all. Safety inside looks good, but it doesn’t solve the serious issues that keep people in crisis. Every person has the potential to fully restore their life. At Shelter KC, we help individuals move forward into independent life off the street. This may sound impossible, but it is possible one person at a time.

Eric Burger is executive director of Shelter KC: A Kansas City Rescue Mission.