Published November 6th, 2020 at 10:00 AM
As the homeless population swells with the COVID-19 pandemic, the Downtown Council is looking to Lawrence for an idea to help shelter vulnerable people living outdoors before winter arrives.
The organization of downtown business and property owners is seeking help from the city and Jackson County to fund a proposal that would establish a tent camp on the site of the former Chouteau Court housing project northwest of Independence Avenue and The Paseo.
Sean O’Byrne, Downtown Council vice president, said the snowfall coupled with sub-freezing temperatures that hit Kansas City in late October were an alarm bell.
“We’re seeing a large uptick with the homeless downtown and shelters are only able to take in one-third of what they did (before COVID),” he said.
“The police department is doing the best they can, but quality of life issues don’t qualify for jail. The homeless have nowhere to go. We’re dealing with mental illness, drinking and doing drugs.
“Every embankment you see has encampments. It’s a perfect storm for a humanitarian crisis.”
O’Byrne estimated several hundred people are living outdoors in makeshift camps in and around downtown and other parts of the city.
He and Jared Campbell, downtown resident liaison for the Downtown Council, want to establish a well-organized, homeless camp similar to one recently opened by the city of Lawrence at Woody Park near the Lawrence-Douglas County Public Health center.
The Lawrence facility includes 20 tents for sleeping, a large tent for serving meals, shower facilities and portable toilets. The Lawrence City Council approved a six-month permit for the homeless tent complex, enough time to get through the cold weather months.
At a briefing to the Downtown Council board Thursday, Campbell said a similar 180-day time frame is envision for the proposed Kansas City facility.
“It would be a place where people can be safe, have the resources they need and get through this winter and pandemic,” Campbell said.
The former Chouteau Court site is being recommended because it’s close to downtown and not located near a dense residential area. The property is owned by the Kansas City Housing Authority.
It’s also a short walk to service agencies including the City Mission; ReStart; Hope Faith Ministries, which provides meals, showers and counseling; and the Downtown Community Services Center where NourishKC, Street Medicine KC and the KC CARE Clinic are located.
Campbell and O’Byrne said city officials, including Councilman Eric Bunch, who’s district includes downtown, and A.J. Herrman, director of policy for the city, have been briefed about the proposal.
The city officials acknowledged the looming issue of protecting the homeless this winter, but so far have been noncommittal to the Downtown Council concept.
The next step will be to approach Jackson County and County Administrator Troy Schulte about seeking CARES Act funding. The federal COVID relief program, which also is intended to help the homeless during the pandemic, is administered by the county.
Campbell estimated it would cost roughly $200,000 to set up an initial camp with 25, 10-foot by 10-foot tents elevated by pallets, sleeping cots, a lock box for personal belongings, a trailer for hand-washing and toilets, fencing and 24/7 staffing.
While the Downtown Council is spearheading the proposal, it would prefer not to operate the facility. If successful in lining up financial help and obtaining approvals for the camp, backers would like to have it operational before December.
At the meeting, board member Richard Martin, an attorney at J.E. Dunn Construction, suggested corporate donations also should be sought.
“We need to do this within two to three weeks, before the end of November,” he said.
O’Byrne said it was vital to move forward while the weather is still relatively mild.
“If we don’t move on this soon, we’ll have a lot of people in extremely bad shape with no shelter other than a tarp,” he said.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Jared Campbell’s name.
Flatland contributor Kevin Collison is founder and publisher of CityScene KC, an online source for downtown news and issues.