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Age of Coronavirus: KC Area Far Short Of Space For Homeless During Pandemic

New Study Says Region Needs At Least 1,100 Additional Beds

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Above image credit: Richard Doyle, right, and Jake Robinson, staffers at Hope Faith Ministries in Kansas City, Missouri, wheel in donated orange juice Monday morning. The agency is on the front lines of serving the homeless during the COVID-19 outbreak (Mike Sherry | Flatland)

Just as medical officials cross their fingers that there is enough hospital space for COVID-19 patients, new national figures warn that the virus could overwhelm the emergency shelter system for the homeless.

The three main counties in the Kansas City area — Wyandotte and Johnson in Kansas, and Jackson in Missouri — would have to boost bed capacity by about 60% virtually overnight as the virus begins to peak, according to a new study led by a research team at the University of Pennsylvania.

The cost for those roughly 1,100 additional new beds: $32 million.

Nationwide, the research estimates a price tag of $11.5 billion for an additional 400,000 shelter beds.

The pandemic is creating a “severe and emergent health crisis for the homeless population” that the system of health providers and shelters “are simply not adequately prepared to meet,” concluded the report.

Noting the increasing number of older adults among the nation’s homeless population, along with the underlying health conditions prevalent among unsheltered folks, the researchers warned that the coronavirus “is likely to wreak havoc on this already highly vulnerable group.”

One local coalition hoped to have some additional beds available through an area nonprofit early this week, as advocates scour the landscape for safe spaces. Their hope is that the need is less than that anticipated in the Penn study.

Quinton Lucas
Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas.

Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas has even floated the idea of the city purchasing a building to treat and house the homeless. The city is talking with real estate agents about locations.

“Every responsible city our size should be doing the same thing right now,” Lucas said.

Lucas’ comments came as other parts of the country, such as Santa Clara County in California, are paying for hotel/motel space to keep the homeless from getting sick.

Meanwhile, New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo on Thursday announced plans to establish upwards of 1,000 COVID-19 beds in hard-hit areas on college campuses and convention centers.

The ongoing discussions locally come as the number of cases in Kansas and Missouri surge.

As of Sunday afternoon, Missouri reported 903 cases and 12 deaths, while Kansas reported 391 cases and six deaths. Two weeks ago, Missouri had only five confirmed cases, while Kansas had 11 at that time.

Lucas said the urgency of working with the homeless population during this crisis hit him recently as he stopped to chat with a group of them while he was on a run downtown. As they spoke, one guy stooped to pick up a cigarette butt from the ground.

“Think about all the things that can be spread from practices like that,” he said.

“Getting There”

In Jackson and Wyandotte counties, emergency coordination is coming through The Greater Kansas City Coalition to End Homelessness. United Community Services (UCS) of Johnson County is serving that role in Johnson County.

The Jackson-Wyandotte consortium is working with an area nonprofit agency to secure some homeless beds in both counties. Officials are hopeful they can reach an agreement this week.

That could include as many as 50 beds in Kansas City, Kansas, said Executive Director Heather Hoffman.

“We are getting there,” she said. “It is definitely a two step forward, one step backward, moment for sure.”

The consortium is circulating a six-page plan among government officials in both counties.

Among the top priorities identified by the consortium are 20 quarantine slots, with appropriate security and direct-service personnel, along with onsite food service available for 14 days.

One consortium member, Hope Faith Ministries, at 705 Virginia Ave. in Kansas City, Missouri, had continued service outside its facility to serve meals, offer showers, and provide other services to the homeless.

The full effort cannot be accomplished without the financial resources available to local governments, Hoffman said. 

The hierarchy of needs within the homeless population include symptomatic people awaiting test results and folks who don’t have any symptoms but are at risk of exposure if, for instance, they are living close to one another in an outdoor encampment.

In Johnson County, the team has been stressing to its existing shelters the cleanliness and hygienic practices — including “social distancing” — now being urged from federal government agencies like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

That’s according to Valorie Carson, community planning director with UCS.

Another initial focus, she said, is establishing isolation and quarantine beds for people with mild or moderate symptoms with no place to “stay at home” to recover.

“That potentially meets the needs of a pretty broad group,” she said, including people who have no shelter or those doubled up and asked to leave by roommates who don’t want to get infected.

It’s important to meet people where they are, Carson said. So, if someone feels more safe living out of their car, rather than in a crowded shelter, then she said workers will ensure that person has enough basic supplies.

It’s important not to rule out any intervention or solution, Carson said, because, “We still don’t know what this will look like in 30 days.”

Helping Hand

At Hope Faith Ministries in downtown Kansas City, Missouri, a couple delivery men showed up unexpectedly Monday morning. They brought donated orange juice from Belfonte food company.

It has been like that ever since Hope Faith, a day center for the homeless, began its special COVID-19 operation on Wednesday, said Executive Director Jaysen Van Sickle.

They’ve gotten so much food donated — as many as 1,500 meals a day — that Hope Faith is giving it to other agencies.

Hope Faith is offering services outside of its building to comply with all the directives in place to prevent the spread of the virus.

Hope Faith is serving fewer people than it normally does, Van Sickle said, probably because regular clients are self-quarantining in encampments. 

The agency is seeing a lot of families and senior citizens, and staffers are expecting a surge as the virus continues to spread.

Surveying the sea of tents outside the facility, Van Sickle said, “This is not an overnight thing. This is going to be a long-term project.”

Andre Murray, 53, is one regular still coming to Hope Faith.

He sleeps in the doorway of building downtown — “a nice little spot,” he said — and is concerned that the virus tends to spread if people congregate.

Hope Faith Ministries client Andre Murray
Andre Murray, 53, a client of Hope Faith Ministries, is concerned about the coronavirus, but is following all the recommendations to steer clear of people. (Mike Sherry | Flatland)

That’s hard to do among the homeless, Murray said, and he’s always reminding people to keep their distance.

He’s not too worried about catching the virus. “I spend a lot of time to myself anyway,” he said.

Cash Assistance

Financial help for homeless services is on the way from Washington, D.C., after President Donald Trump signed the $2 trillion coronavirus relief bill on Friday.

An analysis by National Alliance to End Homelessness (NAEH), highlighted $4 billion available nationally through the Emergency Solutions Grant program, a formula grant program to state and local governments for a broad range of services to people who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless.

The analysis also noted that some of the $5 billion allotted to Community Development Block Grants could be used for homelessness services, and it also noted that the individual payments to some households could prevent people from becoming homeless.

The association has boiled down the needs of providers into space, supplies, and staff.

Even in the best of times, nearly 40% of the people who need shelter don’t get it, the association’s CEO, Nan Roman, said. “It’s not a surprise that this is being exacerbated by the current situation,” she said.

As far as supplies go, Roman said some shelters are running short on food. Shelters rely on food brought in by volunteers, she said, but many volunteers are sheltering in place.

The same issue leads to staff shortages, if personnel are sick with the virus themselves, staying home with kids who are out of school, or simply avoiding contact with others.

One of her biggest fears is a double-dip of sorts, where people stave off homelesness thanks to moratoriums on evictions and utility shut-offs during the crisis, only to lose their place once those protections are lifted.

She worries that just such a thing could happen to a bartender friend of hers who is out of work due to the coronavirus.

“It’s hard to see a big new investment in affordable housing,” Roman said. “But, hope springs eternal.”

Bad Timing

The onset of the pandemic could not have come at a worse time for reStart, a homeless services agency in Kansas City, Missouri. Because of financial difficulties, it had started to phase out the beds in its single adult shelter.

Absent an emergency infusion of outside assistance, reStart had hoped to have all 90 beds empty this month. As of last week, the shelter still had about half the beds occupied.

stephanie boyer of restart
Stephanie Boyer, CEO of the reStart homeless agency. (Courtesy | reStart)

CEO Stephanie Boyer said they are turning new clients away, but as far as the existing residents go, she said, “I can’t just put people out in the middle of the street in the midst of a crisis.”

She is adamant that anyone who leaves for testing for COVID-19 is not coming back. She can’t risk an outbreak in the shelter.

Their building at 918 E. Ninth St. has as many as 200 people in it during the day, counting staff plus residents in other reStart programs, such as emergency accommodations for families and youths ages 12 to 17.

The city has thrown reStart a lifeline. The City Council has authorized an emergency payment of $125,000 to the shelter. The council is offering another $125,000 if reStart can match that amount through fundraising.

That will be a tall order since reStart, like many other nonprofits around town, had to postpone a big fundraising event because of prohibitions against large gatherings.

When all is said and done, the pandemic will have a tremendous financial impact. 

But there will be a human toll as well. The University of Pennsylvania report estimates 3,400 deaths among the nation’s homeless population.

Mike Sherry is senior reporter for Kansas City PBS. He can be reached at msherry@kcpt.org or 816.398.4205.

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