In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, two large encampments have been set up in Kansas City to show how the city isn’t doing enough to address the issues faced by the unhoused community.
The Kansas City Homeless Union on the front lawn of City Hall and Camp 6ixx in the Westport area recently received notice to vacate by April 5.
“Why sweep us?” said James Qadhafi Shelby, who goes by Qadhafi. He leads the Kansas City Homeless Union. “Where can we go?”
For the men and women living in these camps, that’s a question without an answer. And that’s exactly the problem they’re trying to highlight.
Qadhafi became homeless in August 2019 after leaving prison. He has since been organizing with housing justice groups in Kansas City and campaigning on behalf of unhoused people.
The members of Kansas City’s first homeless union have been living on City Hall’s lawn since the end of January.
On a particularly windy Wednesday, men and women in the encampment are busy sweeping up trash, pitching tents, collecting boxes, giving each other a shave or sharing food. More than 25 tents dot the lawn.
“Everybody’s taken care of here, and this is the people’s houses,” Qadhafi said. “And they’re saying we’re not welcome. If we’re not welcome here, where are we welcome?”
The Homeless Union demands homes, jobs, access to water and a seat at the city’s table. Specific policy demands include having the city convert vacant city properties into homes for unhoused people and guaranteeing “showers, bathrooms and handwashing stations for unhoused people.”
As the Homeless Union faces the risk of being displaced from this camp, Qadhafi said they’re not leaving.
“We formed the union because everybody keeps speaking on our behalf saying they’re doing stuff, but the stuff they’re doing don’t benefit us,” he said. “It never benefits the people directly impacted.”
How Kansas City responds to encampments
When city officials become aware of an encampment, like Camp 6ixx or the City Hall occupation, the city partners with social service organizations to conduct outreach and connect unhoused people with services they might need, like overnight shelter or a shower, said city communications director Chris Hernandez.
Social service workers, sometimes accompanied by Kansas City Police Department officers, will visit a site multiple times over the course of several weeks.
“The goal for all of us is to make sure that people are getting access to the services that they need,” Hernandez said.
In the case of the City Hall encampments and Camp 6ixx, Hernandez said the city issued notices to vacate because of concerns of public health and safety hazards.
But in the days before the camp was asked to vacate, there were no portable toilets on site. No access to running water.
Local shelters only have so many beds and cannot serve every person who needs a place to stay, Qadhafi said. The pandemic has further exacerbated that problem.
Lulu Livingston has become a leader of the camp occupation and has experienced consistent homelessness for the past two years. She’s scared and anxious about the notice to vacate, but she also firmly believes in the union’s cause.
“We’re not here just for a place to live,” she said. “We’re here for a bigger purpose, for a cause. What we do here can affect what happens 30, 40 years down the road.”
At Camp 6ixx about 4 miles south of City Hall, at the intersection of Southwest Trafficway and Westport Road, the group has grown to more than 20 tents.
Ashley Handy was among the first to join the camp in mid-February. People had access to a generator and heaters to stay warm during the winter. To Handy, the camp is family.
“My favorite saying for this camp, and everyone knows, is: ‘Ohana. Ohana means family. Family means no one gets left behind,’” she said, quoting the Disney movie “Lilo & Stitch.”
“We don’t leave nobody behind.”
The costs of sweeps
According to the latest Point-in-Time Count from the Greater Kansas City Coalition to End Homelessness conducted January 2020, there were 1,733 adults and children experiencing homelessness throughout the Kansas City, Missouri, area, including Lee’s Summit, Independence and Jackson County.
A point-in-time count in the Kansas City metro hasn’t been conducted since the start of the pandemic. But Marqueia Watson, executive director of the Greater Kansas City Coalition to End Homelessness, said they’ve seen a spike in homelessness since the pandemic even though updated figures have not yet been released.
For unhoused people in Kansas City, removal from an encampment means possibly losing their belongings and risking further displacement with no promise of permanent shelter.
Increased attention over camp sweeps and the city’s treatment of unhoused residents come as the city finalized its budget for the upcoming fiscal year, where much of public feedback called for the city to direct more money to support unhoused residents. At a rally held outside City Hall on April 1, attendees chanted “Stop the sweeps” and “House the people” in support of the Homeless Union and its demands.
According to invoices obtained by The Beacon through a Sunshine records request, from 2019 to 2020, Kansas City paid more than $50,000 to Wright & Sons Landscaping, a third-party contractor out of Lenexa, Kansas, for abatement services involving cleanups of homeless encampments.
The contract has been renewed six times since 2015 and is not specifically for sweeps of homeless encampments, Hernandez said.
The contract is for services including mowing and removal of trash, tires, appliances and other debris. But some of these actions involve cleanups of homeless camps, records show.
Hernandez said contractors are “on-call” and used in emergencies or on weekends, when staff members are not able to perform those abatement services. When it comes to cleanups of encampments, Hernandez said the contractors come in after those sites are already largely abandoned.
“Typically there’s trash left behind, human waste and things like that, and that’s where these abatement services then come in to do a cleanup of an abandoned site once everyone has moved on,” Hernandez said.
As the city pours more funding into housing services, unhoused community say it’s not enough
In recent months, Kansas City officials have launched new initiatives in attempts to address the needs of unhoused people in the city.
John Wood, director of Kansas City’s Neighborhoods and Housing Services, said this more direct approach marks a shift in what used to be a more decentralized strategy that put social service organizations at the helm.
“We did get involved in it, and much more proactively, much more hands on, than we have in the past,” Wood said. “Now, having said that, there’s still a lot of work to do.”
In late January, during brutally cold temperatures, city officials opened a temporary overnight warming shelter at Bartle Hall at the Kansas City Convention Center that served more than 300 unhoused people each night. The center closed mid-March.
The city will also be directing $8.5 million to fund services for unhoused people. This includes $1.5 million in annual funding from the city and an additional $7 million from COVID-19 relief funds to support about two dozen community and social service organizations.
City officials recently announced a new initiative: using the Land Bank Dollar Sale to sell vacants houses to people for $1, provided the owner fully rehabilitates the property, eliminates blight and provides the housing to unhoused individuals or those who earn $18,000 annually or less.
But Qadhafi said these just give an appearance of the city attempting to help unhoused individuals, and fail to directly benefit them or provide a lasting solution. Unhoused folks should have a seat at the table, Qadhafi said.
“They could spend money on Land Bank … to buy homes, and actually place people in homes and get that many people off the street,” he said. “Rather than to sweep them and displace them, and to ensure they stay on the street.”