We Can End Homelessness in Kansas City Forever

The opening of a brief Kansas City Star article on homelessness from early 2016 said it all:

For the third time in two months, a homeless man intentionally damaged a Kansas City police vehicle because he wanted to go to jail to have a warm place to stay and something to eat.

After smashing a police cruiser’s taillight, the man turned himself in, explaining he didn’t like local shelters and would prefer prison.

Homeless Kansas Citians, specifically their plight and possible solutions, do not make the local news often enough, even while their faces grow familiar to commuters. Kansas City’s homeless are white, black, or brown; old, young, men, women, children, veterans, victims of abuse; disabled, mentally ill, perfectly healthy.

True, the number of homeless Kansas Citians is dropping. According to the National Health Care for the Homeless Council, Kansas City had an estimated 3,307 homeless people in 2011 (in 2010, Kansas City had the seventh largest homeless population per capita in the nation). Data from 2012 shows about 2,500 homeless people, with over 700 unsheltered. Some 350 individuals were “chronically homeless,” of these just over 100 unsheltered.

That year some 600 were mentally ill, 500 were domestic violence victims, 600 abused drugs or alcohol, 300 were veterans. From 2010-2011, of all homeless adults in local shelters, 10-15% of 18-50 year olds had children with them. The majority of the children were 1-5 or 6-12.

Synergy House, a shelter in Kansas City, writes that

  • 43% of homeless youth report being beaten by a caretaker
  • 40% of homeless youth report being gay and abused in their schools and homes for their orientation
  • 44% of homeless youth report that one or both of their parents had at some point received treatment for alcohol, drug or psychological problems

In 2015, according to KMBC,

the number was down to about 1,450 [345 children]. Still, experts said 19 new families get evicted every day.

Eric Peterson has been homeless for nearly two years. He said it can happen to anyone. “Man, it can happen in just an instant,” he said.

Homelessness is both caused and perpetuated by poverty, job loss, eviction or foreclosure, domestic abuse, substance abuse, mental illness, disability, and other factors. Side of the Road is a 12-minute documentary that gives a voice to Kansas City’s homeless.

While it is encouraging local and national numbers of homeless men, women, and children are declining, these causes are unlikely to disappear. And while local organizations such as the Homelessness Task Force, Artists Helping the Homeless, Homeless Services Coalition of Greater Kansas City, Project Homeless Connect KC, reStart, and the shelters themselves deserve immense praise and reverence for helping the homeless find housing, medical and mental health care, transportation, and jobs–and new townhomes for the homeless are easing the problem–there is more Kansas City can do.

I wrote an article in December 2015 entitled, “U.S. and Canadian Governments Ending Homelessness by Offering Jobs,” which examined the efforts of cities hiring homeless workers to improve their communities.

I wrote that Albuquerque, New Mexico, for example,

began a program that pays a small crew of homeless workers $9 an hour (and a small lunch) to clean up blighted areas of the city…

Mayor Richard J. Berry said, “It’s about the dignity of work… If we can get your confidence up a little, get a few dollars in your pocket, get you stabilized to the point where you want to reach out for services, whether the mental health services or substance abuse services — that’s the upward spiral that I’m looking for… The indignity of having to beg for money cuts through the soul.”

One of the workers, Ramona Beletso, who has slept in cardboard boxes and struggled with alcohol use, said, “I worked for my money. And that feels good.”

 And Reno, Nevada

started paying its own small group of homeless residents $10 an hour for three days of work each week to clean up the Truckee River. The city will provide recommendation letters and financial and interview training to help workers find employment in the private sector.

A councilwoman said, “The public has expected something creative and different from us, so I’m glad that we have committed funding to this. It’s not only about instilling pride in the workers from a good hard-day’s work, but also cleaning up the river for the community.”

A homeless worker, through tears, promised at a press conference, “We will make you proud.”

And Winnipeg in Canada launched a program that

pays homeless persons $11 an hour to pick up trash, shovel snow, and other tasks. In 2014, 86 people worked at various times for the city.

An organizer noted it gives workers experience and references for later use, and that the program lets “people see their capabilities and believe in themselves again. They’ve still got gas in the tank. They’re still capable, and it’s a catalyst to get back into the workforce… When we go out you see innate gifts…the leaders, helpers, caretakers…”

A worker named Randy Malbranck…praised the organizers as “tremendous,” and the job has allowed him to move closer to his goal of renting an apartment. “I think it’s very good. If somebody needs work or needs a little bit of money, it helps… The next step is to just get a full-time job.”

Other cities are considering similar job programs, and there is little reason Kansas City cannot follow suit. We need a new, sensible solution to homelessness that might at least partially satisfy those on the Right (no government handouts, people will be paid to work) and the Left (those that fall to the bottom of the social pit will not be left to rot).

And there is precedent here in Kansas City: in 2010 the Missouri Department of Transportation allied with reStart to hire 6 to 9 homeless workers at minimum wage to pick up trash in the urban core. Even disabled persons can be paid for non-physical tasks that improve the community, such as helping children learn to read at public libraries.

In the cities mentioned, work crews were funded through taxes (also supported by donations).

Opponents of a Kansas City jobs program will decry the cost. Yet hopefully someone will point out to them that if Kansas City can afford an Arrowhead Stadium renovation that drew $212 million from tax dollars, Kauffman renovation that cost the people $225 million, or the $6 million from individual transportation sales taxes and a tax on surrounding businesses for the new streetcar, a program to end the joblessness — and homelessness — of the poorest of our neighbors is in the realm of the possible.

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