Can Kansas City end homelessness? A look at the new 5-year plan for housing, services

After the pandemic threw into even harsher light the reality of homelessness in Kansas City, government officials have announced a plan they hope could house everyone.

The comprehensive plan unveiled Thursday, called Zero KC, is a five-year strategic effort to end the growing problem of homelessness in Kansas City. This plan was produced by the city’s Houseless Task Force, which Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas created in 2021 after some members of the homeless community camped out for weeks on the lawn of City Hall.

While the plan suggests new policies, all policy will first have to be approved by the city council.

A point-in time-count taken in the spring showed more than 700 people were living unsheltered in Kansas City, a number that grew with the pandemic and the resulting loss of income and housing for many people since 2020.

“This is not a city that is making mistakes of the past,” Lucas said at a news conference on the steps of City Hall on Thursday morning. “We’re not just moving people on from one place to another.”

Councilwoman Ryana Parks-Shaw, District 5, and chair of the city’s houseless task force, said the strategic plan also hopes to bring together agencies and non-profit organizations currently doing work to address homelessness, but in a less siloed manner, so they can collaborate in way they haven’t before.

Create low barrier emergency shelters

A major focus of the city’s strategic plan is the creation of low barrier emergency housing, meaning shelter that is available to anyone, regardless of race, religion or addiction, as a few examples.

While there are homeless shelters in Kansas City, they are not accessible to everyone. Emergency low-barrier shelters would remove many of the requirements and prerequisites that current shelters have in place for entry and help many of the people who’ve been left behind in recent months, including families, transitional youth, unaccompanied youth, domestic violence survivors and women.

Kansas City homeless shelters are full. Moms, kids, elderly among those on streets

Josh Henges, who was hired earlier this year as the city’s first houseless prevention coordinator, said people who are sleeping outside are doing so “because the current system wasn’t working, so they created their own.”

“It shouldn’t matter that substance use disorder might be there, or severe persistent mental illness,” he added. “There’s no excuse to not have (low barrier shelters).”

Extreme weather plans

In recent years, Kansas City leaders have tried different methods to support those living unsheltered during the hottest and coldest months of the year. This included an emergency overnight shelter set up in Bartle Hall in winter 2021, after Scott “Sixx” Eike, a man living on the street in Kansas City, froze to death on New Year’s Day following a sweep of his encampment.

Bartle Hall, a temporary emergency warming center established by the city following Eike’s death, drew both praise and criticism, and was not replicated again. Instead, city officials experimented with other ideas, such as a hotel program, providing temporary shelter to unhoused individuals during extreme weather. Warming and cooling sites and buses were also implemented.

But Henges said if Zero KC works as planned and low barrier housing is prioritized, the city won’t need to make a new extreme weather plan every year.

“When we have a low barrier emergency shelter, we don’t have to scramble, and that’s what we need,” he said. “We’re desperate for it.”

He said while this year’s cold weather plan is still being finalized, there are a number of non-profit partners who have stepped forward to offer up space and beds for those in need as temperatures drop.

Work program

Earlier this week, the city launched a new program, called Clean Up KC, designed to create some jobs for those experiencing homelessness.

Through a partnership between KC Public Works, Hope Faith Ministries and Creative Innovative, 15 houseless individuals will be hired to help beautify the city, and in the winter will assist with snow removal.

They will be working about 30 to 35 hours a week and make $15 an hour, said KC Public Works Director Michael Shaw. Some will work in Kansas City’s Historic Northeast neighborhood to help clean up abandoned homeless encampments.

The city is putting about $300,000 behind the one-year pilot program, which will also include job training and skill building opportunities to help prepare the individuals for full employment.

Other goals of the plan include:

  • Connect social services and housing opportunities with people living at existing encampments, dozens of which exist around the city

  • Increase street outreach

  • Better leverage federal dollars to put towards programs

  • Better coordination and collaboration between systems and providers

  • Engage others in the community, including neighbors and businesses

  • Increase the amount of affordable housing that exists in the city

  • Continue focusing on housing stability, including the city’s Right to Counsel program

Kansas City Councilwoman Ryana Parks Shaw, District 5, presents the city’s new strategic plan to end homelessness, called Zero KC, outside City Hall on Thursday, Sept. 22, 2022. Anna Spoerre/
Kansas City Councilwoman Ryana Parks Shaw, District 5, presents the city’s new strategic plan to end homelessness, called Zero KC, outside City Hall on Thursday, Sept. 22, 2022. Anna Spoerre/

Community needs assessment

Over the past year, the city interviewed members of the community, including those experiencing homelessness, and outreach workers, to ask what changes they want to see.

One of the main responses was the need for more affordable housing infrastructure. While someone living unhoused may have a housing voucher in hand, they aren’t always able to immediately get into that home due to the shortage of affordable housing options in the city.

“Although a strength in the Kansas City homeless service provider system is that those who reach a permanent housing solution tend to stay housed, the length of time it takes to get an individual or family housed is a major weakness,” the plan read. “The longer someone is unhoused, the greater the threat to their mental and physical health, personal safety, and ability to adapt to housing once it is available.”

Unhoused youth, including members of the LGBTQ community, said one of their biggest concerns was difficulty in getting the help needed to find housing once they turn 18. They were also concerned about getting services and shelter in parts of the city that are welcoming and safe to them.

Adults with children can often have a more difficult time finding housing, even with a voucher, the needs assessment confirmed. One mother, who is not named, said she was handed a packet of information but left on her own to find help while living with her four children in a shelter.

Other suggestions:

  • Better personal hygiene facilities, including restrooms, showers and laundry facilities

  • More shelters, including low barrier emergency shelters open at all hours of the day without any religious expectations attached, and a shelter in the Northland.

  • More affordable housing options

  • A faster extreme weather response

  • Safe spots designated for camping

  • Expanding call hours for service providers

Asked what is working well already, some pointed to the free city buses, and resources available for tenants facing evictions as examples of things that have been helpful.

Others said, “nothing is working well.”

Anton Washington, who has spent years doing outreach at encampments and shelters across the region, said two years ago, he never would have imagined an initiative like this coming to fruition so quickly.

He said Eike’s death really served as a reality check for the city and community to see there is a problem.

“This is history in the making for Kansas City,” said Washington, executive director of Creative Innovative. “I hope we stay on the right track.”