Beyond Our Borders
11:19 am
Tue July 1, 2014

Neighborhoods In Kansas City's Historic Northeast Move Beyond City Ordinance

Neighborhoods say there are hundreds of homeless camps throughout the woods along historic Cliff Drive.
Credit Laura Ziegler

The Historic Northeast has a concentration of social services such as soup kitchens, shelters and health centers.

And the services tend to draw large numbers of the homeless to the area.

During the past year and a half, residents have been organizing to deal with some of the accompanying issues, like excess trash, sanitation and property damage. 

Their latest effort centered on a controversial Kansas City ordinance that recently failed in the city council. The so-called “food-sharing” ordinance was aimed at ad-hoc food sharing — well-meaning  individuals, churches or institutions without permits distributing food.  Some established social service agencies claimed it created unnecessary bureaucracy.

Among other things, the law would have:

  • required any person or agency distributing food to get a free permit acknowledging food was prepared and stored according to health department codes.
  • required any person or agency distributing food to provide trash receptacles.
  • required labeling of containers with the name of the distributor.

Brett Schoffner would like the parks along historic Cliff Drive to have clean biking and hiking trails, maybe even a boy scout camp.
Credit Laura Ziegler

A number of neighborhood leaders in the Historic Northeast are disappointed the ordinance failed.

Brett Schoffner is one of them. He's taken on a leadership role in restoring the wooded parks along historic Cliff Drive, overlooking the Missouri River Bottoms. 

Schoffner recently took me on a hike down some steep and well-worn trails to one of the many homeless campsites in the woods. All along the way, there's trash — plastic, bottles, electronics.  

We reach a clearing in the woods. The air is  completely still, stale and humid. Mosquitoes are thick. It's neither a campsite nor a home. But it's clearly a place where someone has been living.

Schoffner says there was a family here over the winter.

"We got them some help," says Schoffner. "They had a small child with them and it was heartbreaking. Their tent is gone and stroller and everything else they had."

Someone else has moved in here now. There's an overturned office chair, a hanging tarp, two coats draped across some branches. Not far from a fire pit is an overturned vase with some plastic flowers.

The recently failed city ordinance evolved in response to those who are making their homes in these woods. And they rely on the well-meaning families, churches or institutions who set up at the rim of the park and provide take-away meals. 

Supporters of the failed city ordinance want to make sure spontaneous efforts to feed the needy meet uniform health codes.
Credit Laura Ziegler

While neighbors in the Northeast took up the effort to deal with the impact of these non-regulated feeding sites, the problem isn't isolated to the Northeast. (To see a directory of social services in the metro click here.)

Similar issues come up at sites around the city where the needy congregate — along highways, under bridges and in parks. Critics of this kind of philanthropy say the population it draws often will take unhealthy liberties — some urinate, even defecate in vacant homes and public buildings.

The city ordinance also would have required agencies to provide services that address the systemic causes of homelessness — something supporters see as one of the most important aspects.

Some residents in the Northeast feel outsiders come to the urban core for the wrong reasons.

"There's a lot of suburban groups that come to ... feel good ... get rid of some guilt ... and do a photo op," says Chris Homiak of the Independence Plaza Neighborhood Association. "I don’t think that's really helpful for anybody long term."

Homiak says he worries the ordinance may have created barriers to reaching the most vulnerable of the homeless. At the same time, he says, there is a problem with the ad-hoc feeding operations.

Amy Ritterskamp and Jon Harrison of Pendleton Heights say some are vilified for pointing out the impact of homeless camps.
Credit Laura Ziegler

At the Pendleton Heights neighborhood meeting, Jonathon Harrison and Amy Ritterskamp said the issue had become hard to talk about.

“There’s been a lot of attacks," Harrison says of the divisive nature of the conversation.

Ritterskamp adds, "You don’t wanna come out and say don’t feed people, but at the same time I see it as a public health issue."

No one knows better than Councilman Scott Wagner that homelessness is a complex problem. He’s been working with residents in the Northeast for more than a year and initiated the recently failed city ordinance.

Wagner says the legislation was never meant to be a panacea.

"The ordinance doesn’t solve homelessness," he says. "What it has done though is raise the conversation to talk about what is it we want at the end of the day. We begin to spark that conversation."

Residents in the Northeast are game for that kind of involvement. But in the meantime, they’re left looking for an alternative way to deal with an immediate and acute problem in their backyard.

This look at Kansas City's eastside is part of KCUR's months-long examination of how geographic borders affect our daily lives in Kansas City. KCUR will go Beyond Our Borders and spark a community conversation through social outreach and innovative journalism.

We will share the history of these lines, how the borders affect the current Kansas City experience and what's being done to bridge or dissolve them. Be a source for Beyond Our Borders: Share your perspective and experiences east of Troost with KCUR.