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It’s noon on a June Saturday in Kansas City, and the combination of humidity and the searing sun is getting to Michael Lee Perry. He’s working up a sweat as he walks down the street with his bike.
For Perry, home is made up of several tents tucked away in a shady wooded area near the Columbus Park neighborhood of Kansas City.
The heat makes it difficult to manage his high blood pressure. And Perry doesn’t have access to consistent medical care or stable housing.
“I try to stay healthy, watch what I do, don’t mess up any cuts or anything,” he said. “But outside of my hypertension — and I know it’s getting kind of tough because it’s getting hot out here — I sweat a lot. I’m not on my proper meds.”
Perry is one of dozens of people in Kansas City who live at least part of the time outdoors, in tents, in their cars or on the streets. While homelessness has been a challenge for the metro for years, the pandemic shined a light on the vulnerabilities of the unhoused population — and how ill-prepared the region is to help them.
When COVID-19 cases started rising, people were told to stay at home to stop the spread. But if a safe home is a potent public health prescription, it is one of many forms of health care that Perry and others cannot access. They struggle to see a doctor, to treat chronic pain and to get the necessary medications to treat issues like high blood pressure.
Those inequities were amplified during the pandemic. Lack of access to things like a sink to wash hands and shelter to stay distanced from others meant being more at risk to catch COVID-19.
“That place is super important for healing,” said Jodi Mathews, director of development and marketing at Reconciliation Services, a local nonprofit serving unhoused communities in Kansas City.
The medical care that is available for unhoused people is often offered through service providers like Street Medicine KC, which offers a traveling medical van, and Reconciliation Services. Located on the corner of 31st Street and Troost Avenue, the nonprofit provides a range of services, from IDs to food to medical care.
Mathews has seen firsthand how a lack of reliable shelter can impact a person’s health and quality of life.
“Their health is something that they get confronted with when it’s so bad that they can’t just deal with it,” she said. “It’s urgent, it’s an emergency. And that’s when they go to the ER.”
Barriers to medical care for unhoused people in Kansas City
According to the latest homelessness point-in-time count by the Greater Kansas Coalition to End Homelessness, there were over 1,700 unhoused people in the Kansas City metro, including Jackson County, Independence and Lee’s Summit as of January 2020 — 443 were unsheltered and 1,290 staying in transitional or emergency shelter. Updated numbers reflecting the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic have not yet been released, though service providers believe the number has increased.
Agencies and free clinics help with needs like dental care, hearing aids and durable medical boots. But Mathews said many needs are left untreated and ignored in the daily struggle for survival on the streets.
“People are going to choose housing over eyeglasses,” she said. “They’re going to choose food over trying to figure out why they have this ache and pain in this area, or why something else is going wrong with them. Because the immediate urgent need is always what is on their mind.”
In addition to its traveling van, Street Medicine KC operates a weekend clinic near downtown Kansas City, on the corner of The Paseo and 8th Street. Aimee Lynn Davis, a nurse and volunteer, said unhoused people lack medical supplies as basic as band aids for a cut or pain relief for a headache.
“You’re not able to just provide your basic in-home first aid,” Davis said. “So you can end up with larger infections.”
Another challenge for unhoused people is a lack of empathy and kindness from medical professionals when they do seek care.
“If you’re going to be treated like crap, why would you want to go somewhere to get treatment?” Davis said. “It’s, ‘I’d rather have an infection, than go be treated like crap by somebody who has a professional degree or has some ability to provide care.’”
How service providers fill the health care gap for the unhoused
When Michael Johnson started going to Street Medicine KC during the pandemic, he was staying at a local homeless shelter with his son, and experiencing pain from an untreated hernia.
“I didn’t know what was going on with me,” Johnson said. “By me coming here to find out what was going on, it helped me to get to the hospital to get everything situated.”
Johnson has a job now, and still returns to Street Medicine to volunteer on the weekend.
“We need more places like this,” he said. “Them showing that they care about me helped me get where I am today.”
Some of the measures that service providers adopted to respond to the pandemic are likely to remain in place going forward.
For instance, when restaurants, libraries and other places shut down, the team at Reconciliation Services knew their unhoused neighbors would have trouble finding a sink to wash their hands.
So they set up a washing station on the corner of 31st Street and Troost Avenue.
“This is a really busy, busy corner for our folks traveling by bus,” Mathews said. “Putting a wash station out there, where we can give them this one little spot where they can wash up. … People loved having it out there.”
How the city has responded to unhoused needs
Kansas City officials couldn’t ignore the needs of unhoused people during the pandemic — not when two encampments drew public attention for months, one located in Westport and another in front of City Hall.
After an unhoused man died in the freezing cold, the city in February opened a temporary warming shelter in Bartle Hall, with more than 300 beds. It stayed open until mid-March.
In May, following talks with leaders of the newly formed Kansas City Homeless Union, the city agreed to temporarily shelter unhoused people in hotels. More than 400 persons took advantage of the offer, although the program was widely considered chaotic and poorly planned.
Other policies are still up in the air — like designating an outdoor space for unhoused people to live. A tiny home village, complete with on-site social services that include health care, is in the works.
While the pandemic was hard on unhoused people and the advocates who help them, it also provided opportunities for Kansas City to meet the challenges of its unhoused population in meaningful ways.
It forced issues of housing and homelessless to the top of policy agendas in City Hall.
And the city received dedicated federal funding to address the needs of unhoused residents — $8.5 million in COVID relief funds to help unhoused people and the social service organizations that serve them.
Mathews at Reconciliation Services said the best plan for success is collaboration among existing organizations to better meet the needs of unhoused communities. Unhoused people don’t just need a stable home, she said — they need access to resources, like health care.
“Unless there’s a plan for people to really be engaged with an ongoing health provider, somebody that really gets to know them, and knows what their needs are, then managing those chronic needs is just going to be something that people struggle with,” she said.
This piece is part of a national collaboration that includes the Institute for Nonprofit News, The Beacon/KCUR; Bridge Michigan/Side Effects Public Media; Cicero Independiente/South Side Weekly; Detour Detroit/Planet Detroit/Tostada Magazine; Evanston RoundTable/Growing Community Media; Madison 365/Wausau Pilot & Review; and MinnPost/Sahan Journal. The project was made possible by a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation with additional support from INN’s Amplify News Project and the Solutions Journalism Network.
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