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What Kansas City’s Homeless Shelters are Up Against, and How We Can Help

My Brother's Keeper

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Above image credit: Helping hands. (Illustration | Unsplash)

Many people celebrate October — pumpkin patches and apple picking give way to a jolly holiday season, marking for many people “the best time of the year.” 

But for people experiencing homelessness, October’s chilly weather can blow in feelings of anxiety. While some people welcome relief from the summer sun, others know that the approaching winter is a race against time to keep themselves, and their families, from freezing on the streets at night. 

Homeless shelters everywhere are up against a formidable challenge this year. In April, unemployment in the U.S. reached a post-World War II record of 14.7%. Meanwhile, almost 40 million Americans are at risk of eviction this year.

Shelters are needed now more than ever, but continuing to provide services is a struggle in terms of containing COVID-19 and finding the money during an economic recession. 

“You don’t just snap your fingers and add 100 beds,” said Dennis Chapman, City Union Mission’s Chief Development Officer. 

About 75% of Kansas City’s shelter beds are provided by City Union Mission. They offer emergency sheltering across the city, including a men’s shelter, a women’s shelter, and a family shelter. City Union Mission has been in the community for 96 years meeting the needs of those experiencing homelessness, but 2020 has provided a set of challenges that they’ve never encountered.

Take, for example, toilet paper. 

It may seem like years ago, but think back to the beginning of the pandemic. In an apocalyptic panic, Americans were clearing every store of its toilet paper supply. Chapman said that City Union Mission requires 3,800 rolls of toilet paper every month. While people were piling more than they needed into their carts, they didn’t make the connection that their excess meant lack for someone else. 

Thankfully, City Union Mission has been able to keep their head above water so far, largely thanks to the helping hands of average Kansas Citians. In the 2020 fiscal year, more than half of their income was made up of contributions. 

“Kansas City is a generous community,” Chapman said.

To remain a generous city this year is no small feat. 

A Gallup Poll this year found that 73% of U.S. adults said that they had donated to charity in the past year. That’s 6 percentage points less than during the 2009 recession, which was the previous record low. 

With winter around the corner, shelters are well aware of the inevitable onslaught of people in need. Facilities must continue providing services while also complying with CDC recommendations regarding homeless shelters, which reduces their effective capacity.

The emergency shelter at the Della Gill-Joyce H. Williams Center for victims of domestic violence is typically able to house 38 people. Now, due to social distancing restrictions, that number has dropped to 10.

Director of Operations Arcia Roland said that when lockdown began, the shelter saw a sharp decrease in the number of people coming in for help. But that meant that survivors were trapped in their homes with their abusers and unable to get away and call for help. 

“After a while we saw a huge spike in calls because the abuse had started to intensify,” Roland said.

The shelter also found itself in a situation with more needs and less resources than before. Roland said that the shelter’s staff, and its budget, is stretched thin. 

Having to tell survivors that they’re out of luck was out of the question, so the Della Gill- Joyce H. Williams Center has been sheltering people in hotels. Though well worth it, this has been an incredibly costly venture. The center receives some discounts as well as funding from United Way, but it is still a struggle to continue to provide their necessary services.

How to Help

Odds are, you aren’t sailing through the pandemic either. So many people have been affected by job loss and would reach into their pockets to donate if they weren’t already worried about keeping their own lights on. 

City Union Mission has a list of needs on their website, but Roland and Chapman both expressed a need for volunteers. If health concerns bar you from volunteering, somewhere in that closet there could be a jacket to spare, an unused coloring book, or a children’s toy. 

As Mr. Rogers famously said, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” 

Catherine Hoffman covers communities and culture for Kansas City PBS in cooperation with Report for America.

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