Local News Spotlight

Kansas City police shut down homeless camp

Updated: 2012-02-01T18:26:15Z

By MIKE HENDRICKS

The Kansas City Star

Sitting atop an empty pop corn tin on the north edge of Mulkey Square Park, Dan Rayn worked the crossword, though a bigger puzzle for him, he said, was locating someplace to spend the night.

“We’re not bothering anybody,” the homeless man said, “but we’ve got no choice but to move. We don’t know where we’re going to go.”

Tuesday was moving day all along the forested slope girdling the hilltop park at 13th and Summit streets. Mulkey is directly to the north of the FBI building. But if the park’s notable for anything it’s for being home to that giant Hereford bull perched atop a pylon that’s long been a feature of the downtown skyline.

All winter, Rayn and more than a dozen others have called those woods around the park their home. He’s been there only three or four months, but several other men say they’ve camped for years up there. Strolling the path, one sees everything from pop-up tents to wooden shacks to an elaborate compound constructed from branches, tarps and carpeting.

None the residents were pleased Tuesday morning about being ordered by Kansas City police to vacate the area as of today or face possible arrest for trespassing, building fires and accumulating piles of trash on city property.

“It’s the way I want to live right now,” said Lavern Rayford, who for months has been hauling in used lumber for the tee-pee he was building. “Now I’m going to have someplace else and start over.”

Same with Timothy Cooper and his camp-mate, who calls himself White Hawk. They’ve been pushed from one homeless camp to another on the fringe of downtown since 2007.

“They’ve just got it in for us, I don’t know why,” said Cooper, who everyone on the hill calls Coop.

It’s not the first time police have rousted residents of a homeless camp, but the eviction comes in the wake of the release of a new report calling for a more systematic approach of dealing with homelessness.

Shelters like City Union Mission perform a needed service but do not meet all the needs, the report said.

“This is highly important that they are moving these people because many of them are not voluntarily homeless,” Vickie Riddle at the Homeless Services Coalition said Tuesday.

“The critical issue is that rather than fashioning an absolutely permanent and systematic response to homelessness,” she said, “we offer piecemeal services because we don’t have enough money committed to it. So that means that on a regular basis someone will feel the need to create a camp.”

Some of those on the hill said they are not much for living in homeless shelters. They like their freedom. A few like to drink.

All were aware that, a couple of miles to the south, the city is letting another group of campers alone. Eight to 10 Occupy Kansas City protesters spend every night camped out without a permit in Penn Valley Park across from the Federal Reserve Bank. As many as 30 other sympathizers show up each evening for the general meeting.

But so far, police have pretty much left them alone and the Parks and Recreation department has been willing to tolerate the illegal encampment for going on five months because the protestors cause no fuss, dispose of their trash properly and have brought in portable toilets.

“We’re tying to allow them to exercise their First Amendment rights,” natural resources director Forest Decker said.

For a long time, the city was also tolerant of the homeless camps amid the trees above Beardsley Road and the West Bottoms. But an assault report brought police to the hillside two weeks ago.

“Somebody hit someone in the head with a hammer,” police spokesman Steve Young said.

Officers also took note of the trash. Heaps of it. While encampments are mostly litter-free, one is strewn with broken furniture, food wrappings, plastic bottles and other garbage that campers told a reporter and photographer has been there for years.

As for sanitation, Coop and White Hawk said they burn their bowel movements.

According to Young, police called the streets division to ask if public works was OK with people living on the city-owned property. The answer was “no,” Young said, and so the eviction order went out a week ago.

“They say we’re trespassing,” said a 49-year-old woman who called herself Von as she packed up her three tents and folded up the tarps that kept the wind and the rain out. She, her husband and their dog, Shadow, had split their time the past year between living under the 13th Street bridge and this camp on the hillside.

“This was actually my winter home,” she said, explaining that two living spaces was the couple’s insurance policy.

“Because if you get kicked out of one camp, you can go to the other.”

Von won’t be moving back to the bridge, she said. A family who heard of her plight rented a room for the couple through mid-February. The dog is staying with their benefactors for now.

Von, Rayn and some of the others say they’d like to find jobs and a roof to stay under full time.

“The economy the way it is, there’s not much out there,” said Rayn, a former janitor who said he doesn’t like to drink or do drugs. “Nobody should have to be living out here.”

But several long-time residents of the hill who say they have no intention to change their lifestyles will be moving on to yet another hideaway within view of downtown’s tall office buildings.

“I’ve got a blanket, I’ll go up in the woods someplace,” said a man who gave his name as Michael.

However, his neighbor down the path, who goes by the initials DME, said he had no intention of packing up as he slurped a 24-ounce can of Camo malt liquor at the stroke of noon.

“I’m down here four years now, and I’m not going,” he said. “They’re going to have to take me to jail.”

Police have asked for the parks department’s help in picking up the trash today. Young said homeless services agencies will likely be asked to come collect tents and other valuables left behind.

“It’s not like we’d come in there with torches and burn everything down,” he said.

Meantime, Occupy Kansas City participant Amy Bowen said she was having trouble understanding why her very public group gets to stay indefinitely in one city park, while the homeless who were living in the shadows are now being forced to leave another one.

“I think that’s a very good question,” she said.

To reach Mike Hendricks, call 816-234-4738, or send email to mhendricks@kcstar.com.

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