Published February 27th, 2020 at 6:00 AM
People who work to eliminate homelessness say the service network is like a chain — if one link fails, the whole system breaks.
It is of little value, for instance, to walk somebody back from a psychotic episode or an alcohol bender only to find that longer term counseling is unavailable. Similarly, how can someone work themselves out of a jam, and even hold a job, if they have to sleep on the streets?
So important is emergency shelter to advocates for the homeless, that a Johnson County group battled Lenexa in federal court last year for the right to continue operating an overnight shelter this winter.
But an even bigger crisis is brewing in Kansas City, Missouri, involving a year-round facility that has three times as many beds as the one in Lenexa.
Working to dig itself out of a gaping financial hole, the nonprofit homeless services agency, reStart, is phasing out the 90-bed shelter for single adults it operates just east of downtown, at 918 E. Ninth St.
“Yeah, it’s going to be painful,” said reStart CEO Stephanie Boyer.
“For a lot of years folks have looked to reStart to be the solution to a lot of things,” Boyer said. “And while we want to be the part of the solution for all of the folks that we serve, we certainly can’t do this alone. It’s a community issue.”
ReStart staffers are working to ensure placements for all the remaining residents, but there is no guarantee everyone will have a spot by the time reStart expects to shut down the program in about a month. Such a closure threatens to send ripples throughout the metropolitan housing services network.
At a minimum, Boyer said, reStart needs to raise about $1 million to bring the beds back online, and that is a fraction of what the organization would need to reinstate the support services for the residents.
A last-minute financial bailout could allow the agency to reopen the beds next year, or earlier as dollars roll in. As it stands now, though, the news is “absolutely a huge disappointment and blow to the community,” said Heather Hoffman, executive director of the Greater Kansas City Coalition to End Homelessness.
The reStart shelter is unmatched by any other facility in the region for many reasons, beginning with the fact that it is open around the clock. Many other options close during the day, which is of little help, for instance, to someone who needs to sleep after working overnight.
The faith-based missions of other shelters also can turn off members of the LGBTQ community, which reStart makes a point of welcoming, along with people with HIV/AIDS. The reStart program is also designed to help people get back on their feet, so it has an average stay of about three months.
And finally, in serving single adults, reStart shelters a demographic that does not pull at the heartstrings of donors like families with children, victims of domestic violence, or veterans, making it that much tougher to provide an adequate number of beds for this population.
“We will be losing a unique and badly needed resource,” Hoffman said.
Testimonials from current shelter residents underscore that point, and the importance of the service is not lost on Boyer. “I understand the challenge it will bring for (the residents) as well as to our community,” she said.
Those challenges could well include more encounters with police and ambulance personnel, along with an increase in homeless people around the downtown business district.
According to federal figures cited by the National Alliance to End Homelessness (NAEH), more than 500,000 Americans were homeless during the official count last year. That represented a roughly 3% percent increase from 2018.
But, the alliance said, the nation has made strides in reducing homelessness among families, youth under the age of 18, and veterans.
The irony, at least where emergency shelters are concerned, is that the successes have come with a national focus on providing permanent housing. For some, that shift in funding has come at the expense of assistance to emergency shelters such as the one operated by reStart, which even the NAEH says play a “critical role” in ending homelessness.
Data from the alliance does show a shortage of nearly 200,000 temporary beds available nationwide compared to the needs of homeless individual adults.
Observers, both locally and nationally, say that today’s homelessness is inextricably linked to a lack of affordable housing and stagnant wages.
According to the NAEH, about 8 million extremely poor households nationwide pay at least half of their income toward housing, putting them at risk of housing instability and homelessness.
As executive director of the Lawrence Community Shelter in Lawrence, Kansas, Renee Kuhl is one of the practitioners who sees both pros and cons in the trend toward housing-first policies.
Housing is the way to end homelessnes, she said. But, she added, “People still deserve access to a shelter the day they become homeless.”
Hiring on in early September, Kuhl walked into a situation where safety concerns had led the board to slash capacity by about half, to 65 beds.
And in a hopeful sign for reStart, Kuhl has already raised enough money, including an extra bump from the city for the winter months, to increase capacity to 105 beds.
Kuhl has had an encouraging response from business leaders in Lawrence, and reStart has a sympathetic ear in Sean O’Byrne, vice president of the Downtown Council, a membership organization that works to improve and maintain Kansas City’s business district.
As the council’s point person on homelessness, O’Byrne has worked extensively with reStart, which was the first tenant in Downtown Community Services Center (DCSC), established in 2007 by a nonprofit affiliate of the Downtown Council.
The facility is located at Eighth Street and The Paseo, but reStart had to pull out of the building about a year ago because of its financial difficulties.
A million dollars is a sizable sum, O’Byrne said, but his experience in raising money for the DCSC and keeping it operating for more than a decade has taught him that anything is possible.
The Downtown Council and its members have a vested interest in ensuring that homeless folks are not wandering around downtown, O’Byrne acknowledged. But that is a secondary consideration to helping people in need.
The first step for him is to get with Boyer and see what kind of long-term sustainability plan they can offer to potential funders. Without that, he said, he won’t even get in the door.
Yet Hoffman, the executive director of the homelessness coalition, offered a different solution. “I feel like we can pivot and make this an opportunity to work on our diversion skills,” she said.
In a nutshell, that means enhancing strategies for keeping people from becoming homeless in the first place. Rent assistance is one example.
Founded in 1981 as an emergency overnight shelter for single men in downtown Kansas City, Missouri, reStart has grown into a multifaceted operation that now serves families, veterans, and youth on an annual budget of about $6 million.
As part of its youth services, reStart has a separate nonprofit, reStart Housing Services, that is the local owner of a 14-unit building in Waldo that serves young adults who have aged-out of foster care. Federal housing dollars funded the building, and ReDiscover, a community mental health center, operates the programming at the site.
With a primary mission of securing permanent housing for its clients, reStart also has 73 apartments around the community and also provides financial assistance to help at-risk tenants pay rent or other bills to keep them from becoming homeless.
Board Chair Barry Rogers has been involved with reStart for more than a dozen years, and he said the organization has routinely struggled to balance the books. But, he said, the board had come to rely on the ingenuity and resourcefulness of its longtime chief executive, Evie Craig, to keep the organization on a relatively steady financial course.
The board was shocked from its “mild complacency” in 2016, Rogers said, after the organization fell well short on a capital campaign that was supposed to fund a roughly $3 million renovation. The work included a much-needed upgrade to the kitchen.
With a worsening financial picture, Rogers said, the organization parted ways with its fundraising director, and difficulties refilling that position added to the budget woes.
After 16 years on the job, Craig resigned in August 2018. The chief financial officer left about the same time.
In a prepared statement, Craig wrote that she is “saddened to learn that there may be a loss of vital safety net services to our most vulnerable populations.” She expressed faith in the ability of the region’s “strong network of providers” to help clients at risk of falling through the cracks as long as the emergency beds remain unavailable.
Boyer took over from an interim CEO in January 2019. A veteran administrator within Kansas City’s mental health community, Boyer took on the rebuilding challenge at reStart because she considers it a vital — and viable — asset.
“There really should not be any reason why this agency should not be thriving and doing well,” she said.
Boyer took her first year at the helm to take stock of the organization, scrutinizing expenses all the way down to eliminating cell phones not tied to a specific person. Staff positions have also been either eliminated or consolidated.
She also is ensuring that reStart is maximizing the amount of grant money it can use for administrative costs, and there is some hope that the city might come up with some emergency funds to help keep shelter beds open.
As current shelter residents show, the face of homelessness in the community is varied, though drug problems and mental health issues are recurring themes.
If you saw Matthew Hamblin walking down the street, dressed in brown corduroy pants and a dark blue button-up shirt, and wearing round glasses with thick dark frames, you could easily assume he was a college-educated fellow heading to work in a trendy City Market restaurant.
That assumption would be correct, but you’d probably never guess that he had been living in a homeless shelter for the past couple months, or that he was a convicted felon who had served prison time in Iowa on drug charges.
A native of Dubuque, Iowa, Hamblin, 49, has undergraduate arts degrees from the University of Iowa. His drug problems came from self-medicating his attention deficit disorder with cocaine, and then meth.
He ended up in Kansas City late last year, when a mission to sell a car for a buddy went awry. The car was stolen, sending Hamblin into a drug-fueled downward spiral.
A friend told him about the reStart shelter, and it changed his life.
“It gave me a roof over my head, a bed to sleep in, and an understanding ear in my caseworker,” Hamblin said.
Should the shelter close before he has saved enough money to get his own place, Hamblin already has promises of temporary accommodations from co-workers.
Drugs have also derailed Tracy Miller, 61, a native of Kansas City, Kansas. But crack is what usually trips her up, and a relapse got her evicted from her apartment in Shawnee, Kansas, early last year.
Skinny as a rail, and outfitted in a well-worn straw cowboy hat, Miller looks every bit the part of the “scrapper” she is — someone who enjoys finding things like a discarded motor that can be disassembled for its copper components.
Miller is not destitute.
She gets more than $1,000 a month in disability, and she works part-time at the Amazon warehouse in Lenexa. It’s just that, when she falls off the wagon, she blows through all her savings.
Before getting a spot at reStart, Miller relied on a shelter in Leavenworth, Kansas. It closed at 3 p.m., and then you had to hope to get a bed again when it reopened at 9 p.m.
She spent the night in her truck a few times, and she’s convinced that had she not gotten into reStart, she would’ve frozen to death at some point.
Her prospects for housing alternatives are not nearly as bright as Hamblin’s. At this point, the best option seems to be sleeping in her truck in a parking lot near work.
“It is going to hurt a lot of people if this place closes down,” Miller said. “A lot of people rely on this place.”
Mike Sherry is senior reporter for Kansas City PBS. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 816.398.4205.