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Task force examines the growing issue of homelessness

By KATHLEEN POINTER
The Kansas City Star

Although it may not always be visible, Johnson County has a homeless population. And it’s growing.

“Since so many of them are families, they aren’t people who you are likely to see sleeping on the streets,” said Valorie Carson, a Johnson County representative on the Greater Kansas City Homelessness Task Force. “They are moving every couple of weeks, or sleeping in cars.”

Carson spoke Thursday to the Johnson County Commission to share the task force report, Homeward Bound: Greater Kansas City Housing Sustainability Plan. It was finished this past summer and is available in its entirety online.

Johnson County has five members on the five-county task force, which also includes representatives from Wyandotte, Jackson, Platte and Clay counties. Johnson County became involved with the task force in early 2010.

“The key to ending homelessness is housing,” Carson said.

There is a 16,000-unit housing shortage for low-income people and families, Carson estimated.

The task force estimates that about 13,000 people in the five-county area do not have a consistent placed to sleep at night, although that estimate may be conservative, she said. Of those, 5,000 are children. In Johnson County, there are at least 1,000 homeless kids.

“It’s very much about families in this county,” Carson said.

Homelessness numbers in Johnson County have increased 50 percent in the last few years, she said.

While there are some emergency shelters available for families in Johnson County, most single people, especially men, do not have a place to go. Due to funding issues, KidsTLC had to shut down its emergency overnight shelter for single youth in September.

With homeless numbers across the county rising, the Shawnee Mission School District continues to identify more and more homeless children in its classrooms.

Just in the last week, the district identified 27 more students, bringing the total of homeless families identified this year to 164.

“It boggles the mind,” said Alicia Dean, district federal programs coordinator.

Eighty-two percent of the homeless families last year were classified as first-year homeless.

The district is trying to adapt to the need. It has a social worker who works with struggling students. With a donation of money from Village Presbyterian Church, the district has helped to put up newly homeless families in hotels for a few days until they can figure out their next steps.

During the last school year, it transported 86 students to school in taxis.

“Students cannot be denied enrollment for any reason based on their homeless circumstance,” Dean said.

Carson told the commission that Jamie Van Leeuwen, a senior policy advisor to Colorado’s governor, will give a presentation at the Kansas City Central Library at 8 a.m. Nov. 18. He will speak about Denver’s Road Home program, which Carson described as a model for reducing homelessness in a metropolitan area.

“Denver has made huge strides in this area,” Carson said. “There is no need to reinvent the wheel.”

There are also plans for a public presentation of the report in late fall or early winter, Carson said.

To reach Kathleen Pointer, call 816-234-7701 or send email to kpointer@kcstar.com.

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