When St. Paul’s School of Theology moved to Johnson County, Kansas last year, it left a beautiful, 19-acre campus in Northeast Kansas City, Mo. vacant. Now, the campus could become home to recovering prostitutes, drug and alcohol addicts, and at-risk boys.
The city would have to rezone the area, and some neighbors aren’t happy. They believe a proposal to put a group of social service agencies on the campus will damage the neighborhood’s image and possibly jeopardize their safety.
At small offices in an undisclosed location, Veronica’s Voice, a non-profit that helps get prostitutes off the street, offers lunch, group therapy, and supplies the ladies might need.
Opening the door to a small closet packed with provisions, Director Christy Childs says the ladies can take a shower, or change clothes.
"We have all the different toiletries, different size clothes for emergency type things," says Childs.
Coming from the street
Christy Childs left an abusive home at the age of 12 and spent the next 25 years as a prostitute. She says she was beaten, shot, and pushed out of cars. She named Veronica’s Voice after a friend, a teenage prostitute who was murdered turning a trick.
Today she’s frustrated she can only provide part-time relief for the ladies, a few hours of group therapy and scant material supplies.
Most of the week, she says, no one sees them.
“Who knows what happens. They’re in a war zone," says Childs. "We could have huge success if we got them stabilized and in a good, safe environment where they could work on these things.”
If Steve Wagner has his way, this will change.
Wagner was head of sex trafficking in the Department of Health and Human Services under President George W. Bush, and later created a group known as The Renewal Forum to continue the work.
Wagner met Christy Childs while lobbying for Missouri’s Trafficking Victims Protection Act, which is widely seen as one of the best sex trafficking laws in the country.
In the process, Wagner had the idea for a coalition of social services to come together around Veronica's Voice that would support the women and others in the community. He recruited Veronica's Voice, Ozanam in Kansas City, and added his own Renewal Forum to create a non-profit called KC CASE (the Kansas City Coalition Against Sexual Exploitation).
Wagner says he thinks the effort to create a what he calls a one-stop shop for social services on the St. Paul's campus could become a national model.
"We’re going to create social services on the campus that don’t exist currently, primary medical services, adult education, day care, and they’re interested in a community garden," says Wagner.
The idea worries Dale Fugate.
"It’s like a big sign. When they put in a facility, concentrated with this kind of services into an old working class neighborhood, that says skid row starts here.”
Fugate and his wife Sherry Ashcraft are long time neighborhood activists in the Blue Valley neighborhood – which includes the St. Paul’s campus. They’ve worked hard to counter the influence of prostitution, drug houses, and street crime.
We met in a hotel lobby minutes after Ashcraft and Fugate had come out of a meeting with lawyers for KC CASE. Ashcraft says she’s frustrated.
“You know people do say 'not in my backyard’ and maybe that’s what I am saying. But this neighborhood is fragile, it’s vulnerable already," says Ashcraft. "I don’t see the group coming in reaching out to get a feel for how it might affect the neighborhood or that it even matters.”
The issue has divided the neighborhood
The president of the neighborhood association Jacky Ross resigned during the last meeting, when opponents shouted down lawyers for the project.
And when we met on the St. Paul’s campus, Ross and her daughter Verniece said they were not concerned about having Veronica’s Voice or the other services in the area.
Verniece Ross said prostitutes and drug addicts already populate the area, and the agencies have the potential of helping the problem.
“I think this is mainly about people’s perceptions and fears, and (people) not willing to open their hearts to see the possibilities of good," says Verniece Ross.
Officials at St. Paul’s School of Theology wouldn’t comment on other offers for the property.
Meanwhile, attorneys for KC CASE have asked to postpone the next hearing before the city’s planning commission until October.