Kansas City homeless enraged at city over death in fire

The heat of the fire that on Thursday morning took the life of a homeless person, huddled beneath an Interstate 70 overpass against the night’s cold, was so intense that for hours transportation crews worried that the flames may have been so hot to have weakened the bridge.

Two miles away, standing outside the Hope Faith Homeless Assistance Campus on Virginia Avenue, Michael Johnson’s eyes flashed with fire of their own, his angry discontent pointed at one place:

Kansas City City Hall.

“Kansas City don’t give a (expletive) about none of us!” he said, as news continued to spread that one of their own had died. As of Thursday evening, the individual’s identity had not been released. No foul play was immediately suspected, police said.

“That could have been me,” Maurice Lyles said. He told of how on a recent sub-freezing night, an area shelter turned him away because he had been drinking. No place to go, he slept beneath a tree in only his coat.

“I was literally on ice, a sheet of ice,” he said. He is not sure he would be alive were it not for two Kansas City Police officers who woke him and helped him to his feet.

“They said, ‘Hey, come on man. Get up. Get up.’ They got me up, got me over to McDonald’s,” said Lyles, 46. “They bought me a couple of breakfast burritos. McDonald’s let me sit there until I warmed up enough to figure out where I was. I could have died.”

A body was found early Thursday, Jan. 13, 2022, in a fire at a homeless encampment near Interstate 70 and Truman Road. The Kansas City Fire Department was called around 6 a.m., said Fire Education Specialist Jason Spreitzer. Jill Toyoshiba jtoyoshiba@kcstar.com

A year ago in February, sprawling and elaborate tent cities — pitched in protest over what hundreds of houseless individuals and their advocates saw as Kansas City’s inaction in helping the homeless — rose on the front lawn of City Hall, and at the major intersection of Westport Road and Southwest Trafficway.

The houseless demanded action. And after weeks of contention, City Hall and Mayor Quinton Lucas responded.

Nearly 400 houseless people were put up in area hotels for as long as 90 days at a cost of $1.8 million in both city and federal dollars.

The city has a Houseless Task Force and a Housing and Community Development Department with employees dedicated to issues of homelessness. Among other initiatives: $12.5 million was put into a housing trust fund to spur construction of affordable housing; $16 million in emergency rental assistance was used to help 4,000 households; two hotels are to be turned into permanent and transitional housing. The city recently said it was reserving 3,000 of the city’s empty parcels kept by the Kansas City Land Bank in the hope of building permanent, low-cost housing.

Just on Tuesday, the Mayor’s Task Force and the Downtown Council announced a pilot “Heart Cart” initiative, in which houseless individuals can use any one of 70 large plastic containers to store their belongings.

“The hope,” the city said in announcing the program, “is that more people will be inclined to seek shelter during extreme weather if they know that their personal belongings will be protected.”

City Manager Brian Platt on Thursday said that the task force is working on a policy to deal with encampments.

“The last thing we want to do is to just push people to set up a tent in another location,” he said. “We’re trying to get people permanently off the streets into transitional and permanent housing options and to help them solve the problems that they may be dealing with in order to provide for themselves independently and to get back on their feet.”

But while officials plan, houseless people say that many of them feel forced to survive and sometimes die in the cold. Fires flare from candles, kerosene or propane heaters inside of tents.

“It’s all just talk,” Johnson said of City Hall’s efforts. Stuff for the future, but what about now?

“I mean the shelters are full now,” he said. “COVID’s kicked back up. We can’t go to shelters because they turn people away because of COVID. What the hell are we supposed to do?”

Kira Washington, 21, has been homeless for five years.

“I mean they’re trying to build a train downtown. They got the money to do that, but they can’t help the homeless? They say the same (expletive) every year: they’re going to do better. They have all this money, but they don’t do nothing.”

Kira Washington, 21, left, has been without a home for five years, as has Michael Johnson, 48, right. Eric Adler The Kansas City Star

The need is rising, said Cristi Smith, director of operations at Hope Faith. The ministry serves two meals a day, offers showers, case workers and other wrap-around services.

“I mean, meal-wise, this time last year, we were doing 4,500 meals a month,” she said. “Now we’re consistently doing 10,000.”

She believes the city is well-meaning. Last winter, she witnessed the city’s effort to temporarily house people in hotels. She called it “organized chaos.” Short-term solutions, she said, are not going to solve the issue.

“There are so many schools sitting around here that are vacant,” she said. “Instead of wasting dollars coming up with four-month plans, five-month plans, whatever, we convert some of those schools into low-income housing.”

Doug Langner, the ministry’s executive director, said: “I really think the mayor wants to do the right thing.

“It’s just that it’s such a difficult issue that you cannot solve this overnight. And anyone that says they will is being dishonest with themselves. More importantly, they’re being dishonest to the people they are trying to help. And that creates a distrust in the community.

“And that’s the biggest thing in this line of work. It’s all about trust building.”

Meantime, Smith said, they do what they can, treating people with dignity, offering help, hoping people will accept it. Knowing, too, she said, that until there is a long-term solution, tragedies like the fire won’t be the last.

“I’m not dumb enough to think that it probably won’t be,” Smith said. “I mean, we’ve got to figure out what the big, long-term solution is. Until then, we’re going to keep waking up every day, and keep fighting, and doing our best.”

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Eric Adler has won numerous national, regional and local awards for his reporting that often tells the extraordinary tales of ordinary people. A graduate of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in NY, he also teaches journalism ethics at the University of Kansas.

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