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Yes, KC’s homeless problem has gotten worse. But this aggressive plan may just work

·4 min read

Kansas City is closing in on an important new plan to curb chronic homelessness. Details of an intelligent, multitiered approach are set to be announced Tuesday.

If the plan passes — and all of Kansas City should hope that it does — fewer homeless people will living in tents in our city, and none will be struggling to sleep at Bartle Hall.

This is only a first step, and will even if it works perfectly get only a fraction of the unhoused into a home.

But it’s still a bold and desperately needed effort to curb a problem that, as elsewhere in the country, has gotten significantly worse in the last couple of years.

In part, that’s because, as reported in detail in a recent piece in The Atlantic, a cheaper new form of meth has undeniably contributed “to related scourges now very much evident in America — epidemics of mental illness and homelessness that year by year are growing worse.”

Obviously, different strategies are needed for the very different populations living on the street now. The young mother fleeing domestic violence needs a different kind of help from either the person with a serious mental illness exacerbated by self-medication, or the person whose only real need is a safe and affordable place to stay. Some of those without housing are already working.

Not all of these problems will be solved by this new plan, or other any plan, for that matter. But City Manager Brian Platt and his team have worked hard to develop a framework with more than a reasonable chance of succeeding with some of the roughly 2,000 chronically homeless people in Kansas City.

Platt’s plan begins with the understanding that one thing they all need is temporary shelter when it turns cold.

To that end, the city manager’s office has reached out to existing shelters and service providers for commitments to provide beds when the weather turns. The city has asked for “flexibility” from providers.

Talks are ongoing, but providers seem willing to relax some of their rules. The city will also provide overflow capacity at libraries and community centers, while Bartle Hall is off the list.

That’s good, but the other side of that issue, of course, is that relaxing rules about whether folks can show up high, drunk, and possibly armed will make shelters more dangerous for those who feel safe enough to go there now. And any relaxation of the rules means screening will if anything be more important than ever.

Hotel, tiny homes, shelter for moms and kids

Emergency beds for the homeless are a temporary solution at best.

Because the city needs more permanent answers, too.

Platt wants the city to buy a now-vacant hotel near 119th Street and Blue Ridge Boulevard, providing long-term, low-rent rooms. The city also plans to purchase a vacant hotel at Linwood and Van Brunt boulevards for a “navigation center” where homeless clients can seek help, and occupy additional beds. It’ll cost between $1.5 million and $2 million, not counting staff and operating costs. Roughly 110 homeless people could find beds in the two facilities.

The city is also prepared to partner with Hope Faith, a homeless assistance campus, to construct up to 40 so-called “tiny homes” for shelter. Hope Faith, at Admiral Boulevard and The Paseo, already provides food, clothing and medical help for homeless people.

The tiny homes proposal faced enormous ”not-in-my-backyard” blowback earlier this year. Hope Faith, and the nearby community, deserve thanks and recognition for stepping forward to help with the tiny homes project.

The final piece of the plan to be unveiled this week is a partnership with Amethyst Place, at 27th Street and Troost Avenue, to provide additional shelter for single mothers and children. “It’s really sad to see how many children there are out there,” Platt said.

Taken together, the three initiatives will provide permanent housing options, along with counseling and other critical services, for up to 200 people.

“It’s a start,” he said.

We agree. Throwing a few million dollars at homelessness and then walking away will not work.

Much more counseling and long-term support, including seriously increased mental health services, will be absolutely essential to the success of any plan. Mental health and addiction services are pieces of the multi-pronged solution that seem underestimated in this proposal.

The community must step forward, too. Block by block, neighborhood by neighborhood, we should step forward with constructive criticism and oversight, not blind opposition.

Other cities in the region should consider their own homeless programs, so that Kansas City isn’t overwhelmed.

Finally, Kansas City must redouble its efforts to provide affordable housing options and support for the thousands of families at risk of homelessness. Although it took some time, the city has in the end done an impressive job of handing out rent support during the COVID-19 epidemic.

Yet the need is still growing, and the first round of federal cash is almost gone.

No one in our community should be out in the heat or the cold, literally, because they’re poor.

This first small but important step toward achieving that goal deserves your support.

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