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Kansas City is one of a few cities using a new mobile app to know, and count, its homeless people

 Michael Ensino lives in a tent camp in Kansas City, Mo. He and hundreds of other homeless people prefer living on the street to living in shelters, which makes them hard for the annual census of houseless people to get an accurate count.
Laura Ziegler
/
Michael Ensino lives in a tent camp in Kansas City, Mo. He and hundreds of other homeless people prefer living on the street to living in shelters, which makes them hard for the annual census of houseless people to get an accurate count.

Every January, the federal government requires communities to survey their homeless populations. Known as the Point in Time count, it’s widely known to be inaccurate. Kansas City hopes new technology will lead to a better count — and more helpful use of resources.

When gale force winds whipped across the metro for a few short hours in mid-December, they ripped out many of the 40 or so tents staked in a grassy campground at 10th and Harrison in Kansas City, Missouri. There, a camp of homeless people overlooks the downtown skyline.

“Tents were annihilated,” said a man who identified himself only as Solo. He said he was a member of the Homeless Union, formed by activists in January to advocate for reforms.

“People make fun of ‘trash-pickers,’” he said, “but last night the stuff they’d collected helped people who didn’t have anything. People used the last of what they had to help others.”

Solo and the others here identify this camp as a neighborhood. He said they watch out for one another, just like neighbors do in other communities. They represent the hundreds of people advocates say choose to avoid homeless shelters in favor of self-sufficiency.

But their commitment to this lifestyle makes it difficult to provide the appropriate level of services to unsheltered members of the community.

The federal government requires communities to spend 24 hours every year in late January taking a survey of people experiencing homelessness, whether they are sheltered or unsheltered. Known as the Point in Time count, the data is collected through collaborations between public and private agencies in local communities across the country — the so-called Continuums of Care. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development uses the data to determine how much federal assistance to allocate communities for programs to help homeless people.

Marquia Watson is the Executive Director of the Kansas City Coalition to End Homelessness, the lead agency for the Continuums of Care in Jackson and Wyandotte counties. She said she has mixed feelings about the count.

“It does raise awareness about the issue during the winter, when public concern is high,” she said.

But she said it’s impossible to get an accurate count with so many people living in camps and on the streets. This not only limits how effectively communities can spend federal HUD money, it’s also impossible to plan how to allocate local resources.

“We know there are between 500 and 1,500 living in shelters in Kansas City,” she said. “But until we know at a more granular level who those not in the shelters are and what their individual needs are, we don’t know how to use any of our resources to accommodate them.”

New technology

In late December, outreach workers with the Kansas City Coalition to End Homelessness and other advocacy organizations were introduced to new technology they hope will address the problem of undercounting.

Kansas City is among a handful of cities to use a new mobile app that allows outreach workers to feed information about their clients into a database all year long.

Called Show the Way, the app is designed to supplement the yearly survey of homeless people by providing a more thorough story about an individual's life and habits over time.

Are there friends or family members a person would like to connect to? Do they like to stay in shelters? Are there triggering topics surveyors should avoid?

With the permission of the individual, this information is fed into a central database and becomes accessible to case workers and others for follow-up as they work together to find a more stable living situation.

Matt Simmons, president of SimtechSolutions, which created the app, said he hopes the greater detail will guide more effective policies and use of resources.

“Demographics are one thing,” Simmons said. “But really, what happened in their life that contributed to where they’re at now, and what can we do to get them lifted up and into housing?”

Three other cities — Houston, Texas; Charleston, West Virginia; and Vancouver, Washington — are also using the app to map houseless camps, list individuals by name and track where and how they are living.

For example, Simmons said, “if we found a lot of people living in cars or vans, we could bump up the resources and have a sanctioned parking lot.”

 Nellie McCool and outreach workers with Creative Innovative Entrepreneurs and Free Hot Soup KC deliver supplies like socks, underwear, coats, sleeping bags and propane to houseless people who steer clear of shelters.
Laura Ziegler
/
Nellie McCool and outreach workers with Creative Innovative Entrepreneurs and Free Hot Soup KC deliver supplies like socks, underwear, coats, sleeping bags and propane to houseless people who steer clear of shelters.

Attention from Congress

The inadequacy of the Point in Time count was one reason U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Missouri, requested an investigation into how the survey might be improved.

Cleaver, who represents Missouri’s 5th District, is chair of the Financial Services Subcommittee on Housing, Community Development and Insurance, which oversees homelessness programs. Cleaver said the Point in Time is a necessary exercise, but the statistics are too unreliable.

“We don’t have any idea about all the homeless living in the metro area,” he said. “We throw out statistics but there is very little confidence on the part of those of us who have to make decisions based on it to accept the methodology.”

The issue of how to serve people without housing is a chronic problem, Cleaver said, brought into focus once again by the highly publicized death of Scott “Sixx” Eicke. He was found dead on New Year's Day near East 24th Street and Woodland, apparently from hypothermia.

Cleaver said if he and his committee members are to fight for federal funds, they need “real, accurate numbers.”

Nellie McCool was one of the outreach workers who knew Eicke.

A 31-year-old, no-nonsense mother of two, McCool has been an outreach worker in Kansas City for more than a decade. She works with Creative Innovative Entrepreneurs, a non-profit contracted by the city to do outreach with the houseless population.

She’s also the founder of Free Hot Soup (Kansas City), a network of thousands of volunteers who distribute supplies to individuals who avoid homeless shelters. McCool’s group cultivates relationships with people who live off the grid, in the woods.

On a recent sunny afternoon, she went to the tent camp on the grassy hill overlooking downtown.

She said outreach workers know of around 150 such camps of varying sizes in and around Kansas City.

“When people experience chronic homelessness, they lose trust and faith in service centers being able to meet their needs,” she said. “After answering the same questions six, seven, eight times, they feel dehumanized and would just rather try and figure it out on their own.”

 Carney took his name because he moves around, "like a carnival," said his friend and advocate. He comes to various tent camps to pick up supplies and food.
Laura Ziegler
/
Carney took his name because he moves around, "like a carnival," said his friend and advocate. He comes to various tent camps to pick up supplies and food.

One of the people getting supplies that day was a man who goes by the name Carney, 40, a burly guy wearing a Notre Dame hoodie and a stack of beads including a small stone cross around his neck. McCool has known him for several years.

“I live in a ‘bando,’” Carney said, referring to an abandoned building, also sometimes referred to as a “vaco,” or vacant building.

“He has his street name for a reason,” McCool said. “Carney, like a Carnival. He moves around a lot.”

McCool estimated 30% of the metro area’s homeless people are transient, not because they like life on the streets but because they’re tired of always feeling dependent on others.

Carney needs certain foods because he has hypoglycemia, so he accepts a couple of tins of sweet rolls. McCool knows it’s not easy.

“Their pride is all they have,” she said. “There are a lot who are not going to want us to survey them. There are camps that are so well hidden … we may never find them.”

Copyright 2021 KCUR 89.3. To see more, visit KCUR 89.3.

Laura Ziegler began her career at KCUR as a reporter more than 20 years ago. She became the news director in the mid 1980's and in 1988, went to National Public Radio in Washington, D.C. as a producer for Weekend Edition Saturday with Scott Simon.