As more Kansas citizens lose their homes, people struggle to stay healthy without safe homelessness | KCUR 89.3
It’s noon on a Saturday in June in Kansas City, and the combination of humidity and scorching sun hits Michael Lee Perry. He sweats while walking down the street with his bicycle.
For Perry, the house consists of several tents tucked away in a shady, wooded area near the Columbus Park neighborhood of Kansas City.
The heat makes it difficult to manage her high blood pressure. And Perry doesn’t have access to consistent medical care or stable housing.
âI try to stay healthy, to be careful what I do, not to mess up the cuts or anything,â he said. âBut apart from my high blood pressure – and I know it’s getting a little difficult because it’s hot in here – I sweat a lot. I am not on my proper medication.
Perry is one of hundreds of people in Kansas City who at least some of the time living outdoors, in tents, in their cars, or on the streets. While homelessness has been a challenge for the metro for years, the pandemic has highlighted the vulnerabilities of the homeless population – and how ill-prepared the region is to help them.
When COVID-19 cases started to increase, people were told to stay home to stop the spread. But while a safe home is a powerful public health prescription, it is one of the many forms of health care that Perry and others do not have access to. They find it difficult to see a doctor, treat chronic pain, and get the medications they need to treat conditions like high blood pressure.
These inequalities were magnified during the pandemic. Lack of access to things like a sink for washing hands and shelter to stay away from others meant being at greater risk of catching COVID-19.
âThis place is very important for healing,â said Jodi Mathews, director of development and marketing at Matching services, a local non-profit organization serving the homeless communities of Kansas City.
The medical care available to homeless people is often offered by service providers such as KC Street Medicine, which offers a traveling medical van, and reconciliation services. Located at the corner of 31st Street and Troost Avenue, the association offers a range of services, from ID to food to medical care.
Mathews has seen firsthand how the lack of reliable shelter can impact a person’s health and quality of life.
âTheir health is something they face when it’s so bad that they can’t just cope with it,â she said. âIt’s urgent, it’s an emergency. And that’s when they go to the emergency room.
According to the last punctual count of the homeless carried out by the Greater Kansas Coalition to End Homelessness, there were more than 1,700 homeless people in the Kansas City subway, including Jackson County, Independence and Lee’s Summit in January 2020 – 443 were not accommodated and 1,290 remained in transitional or emergency shelters .
Updated figures reflecting the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic have yet to be released, although service providers believe the number has increased.
Free agencies and clinics meet needs such as dental care, hearing aids, and durable medical boots. But Mathews said many needs go unaddressed and ignored in the daily struggle for survival on the streets.
âPeople are going to choose housing over glasses,â she said. âThey’re going to choose the food rather than trying to figure out why they have this pain and pain in that area, or why something else is wrong with them. Because the immediate urgent need is always what worries them. “
In addition to its roving van, Street Medicine KC operates a weekend clinic near downtown Kansas City at the corner of The Paseo and 8th Street. Aimee Lynn Davis, a nurse and volunteer, said homeless people lack medical supplies as basic as bandages for a cut or pain relief for a headache.
âYou are not able to provide just your basic first aid at home,â Davis said. âSo you can end up with bigger infections. “
Another challenge for homeless people is the lack of empathy and kindness of healthcare professionals when seeking care.
“If you’re going to be treated like shit, why would you want to go somewhere to get treatment?” Davis said. “It’s,” I’d rather have an infection than be treated like crap by someone with a professional degree or some ability to provide care. “”
When Michael Johnson started visiting Street Medicine KC during the pandemic, he was staying at a local homeless shelter with his son and had an untreated hernia.
âI didn’t know what was going on with me,â Johnson said. âComing here to find out what was going on helped me get to the hospital to find everything. “
Johnson now has a job and always returns to Street Medicine to volunteer on weekends.
âWe need more places like this,â he said. “Showing that they care about me has helped me get to where I am today.”
Some of the measures adopted by service providers to respond to the pandemic will likely remain in place in the future.
For example, when restaurants, libraries and other places closed their doors, the team at Reconciliation Services knew that their neighbors without housing would have difficulty finding a sink to wash their hands.
So they set up a car wash at the corner of 31st Street and Troost Avenue.
âIt’s a very busy and busy area for our people traveling by bus,â said Mathews. âPut a washing station over there, where we can give them this little place where they can wash themselves. â¦ People loved having him there.
Kansas City officials couldn’t ignore the needs of homeless people during the pandemic – not when two settlements garnered public attention for months, one located in Westport and the other in front of City Hall .
After a homeless man died in the freezing cold, the city opened a temporary warming shelter in Bartle Hall in February, with more than 300 beds. It remained open until mid-March.
In May, following discussions with leaders of the new Kansas City Homeless Union, the city agreed to temporarily accommodate homeless people in hotels. More than 400 people took advantage of the offer, although the program was widely viewed as chaotic and poorly planned.
Other policies are still pending, such as the designation of an outdoor space for homeless people. A small original village, with on-site social services including health care, is under construction.
While the pandemic has been difficult for people without housing and the advocates who help them, it has also enabled Kansas City to meet the challenges of its homeless population in significant ways.
He put housing and homelessness issues at the top of city hall’s political agendas.
And the city has received dedicated federal funding to meet the needs of homeless residents – $ 8.5 million in COVID relief funds to help homeless people and the social service organizations that serve them.
Mathews of Reconciliation Services said the best plan for success is collaboration between existing organizations to better meet the needs of homeless communities. Homeless people not only need stable housing, she said, they need access to resources, such as health care.
“Unless there is a plan for people to really engage with an ongoing health care provider, someone who really gets to know them and knows their needs, then managing those needs chronic is going to be something that people have a hard time with, âmentioned.
This piece is part of a collaboration that includes the Institute for Nonprofit News, The Beacon / KCUR 89.3; Bridge Michigan / Side Effects Public Media; Cicero Independiente / South Side Weekly; Detour Detroit / Planet Detroit / Tostada Magazine; Evanston Roundtable / Growing Community Media; Madison365 / Wausau pilot and review; and MinnPost / Sahan Journal.
The project was made possible through a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation with additional support from INN’s Amplify News project and the Solutions Journalism Network.