A blunt science steers Kansas City’s pursuit of its homeless.
Who is more likely to die?
That 62-year-old man out there bundled in a wheelchair, tending the nub of a cigarette in the late fall’s first freezing winds, scored high on that rubric. He’s an 11.
So says a 20-page scoring system that some 30 agencies share in an attempt to number — and name — every one of the city’s homeless.
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Anything over 10 means you’re in some serious peril.
Two outreach workers stride toward the man sitting among others huddled in blankets in downtown’s Ilus W. Davis Park. They head for him first because the new methodology makes him a priority.
“Oh, my gosh, it’s so cold,” says the first outreach worker, Sara Schwab of Truman Behavioral Health, greeting the wispy-bearded man.
“I’m worried about you,” says the second worker, Alankar Patel with reStart’s homeless shelter.
Two of Kansas City’s specially trained Crisis Intervention Team officers stand with them — all aware of the man’s trials with alcohol, evictions, an amputated leg and resistance against their aid.
Sure he wants help, the man tells them. Yes, he’ll do what they say.
But he’s said that before. Many times.
Caught in a flood
Willard and LaVette Wilkins also hit a score of 11.
The measurement tool is the VI-SPDAT, the Vulnerability Index/Service Prioritization Decision Assistance Tool. Many cities are using the tool, created by New York-based Community Solutions and Ontario’s OrgCode Consulting, as they try to bring homelessness to zero, working from the hardest cases on down.
But knowing the score won’t win the cooperation of dispirited individuals often tormented by addiction and mental illness.
It won’t help if the endangered, like the Wilkinses, duck away every night in their own wooded hideaways in the city.
“I guess you have to hit rock bottom,” Willard Wilkins, 50, said. “But where is rock bottom?”
They both have families they have regretfully separated from. He’s been “shot, stabbed and mugged” while trying to survive alcohol addiction, he said, “and that still wasn’t it.”
Even the “Flood of 2015” didn’t bottom them out, LaVette Wilkins, 35, said.
They had hid their tent that summer in heavy foliage near 55th Street and Indiana Avenue, nested between a steep embankment on one side and the stone wall of the Town Fork Creek concrete channel on the other.
Roaring rain the night of the flood only deepened their drinker’s sleep until the channel’s rising current breached the wall and tossed them awake.
In a moment everything was gone and Willard in rushing water had one arm hooked hard around a tree stump and the other arm holding a life-saving grip around LaVette.
“We were praying to God,” she said.
“I told her,” he said, “ ‘Baby, I got this.’ ”
Every two weeks on Monday afternoons, social workers and program managers gather around tables at reStart’s housing center east of downtown.
By name and by priority they try to match the most vulnerable people with the openings agencies have in their services:
“We’re having trouble connecting with (No. 58)? Anyone else having contact with this person?”
“(No. 38) is almost housed. He needs permanent supportive housing.”
“Is there mental illness?”
“What about (No. 53)?”
“We can take him, but there is an issue with rent in arrears. Can somebody help with that?”
Jackson and Wyandotte counties are working together, with 33 agencies and services involved at some point over the past three years.
Their early attention was on housing homeless veterans. Now they are sharpening their focus on the broader population of seriously homeless individuals.
It’s harder this way, said Amy Copeland, a housing consultant with the Missouri Department of Mental Health, and it should be.
Before the vulnerability indexing, the openings in the department’s Shelter Plus Care program would go to people on a waiting list, she said. Easier placements.
But now that they match openings to people who need them the most, many are difficult to bring in.
“Some have untreated mental illness,” she said. “Some have never lived as a tenant. Some aren’t ready … but we keep coming back to them.”
Some of the updates around the tables are woeful.
“I couldn’t find (No. 28). I don’t know where he’s at.”
“(No. 43) just got evicted.”
But some reports are encouraging, even joyful.
At most every meeting, 10 to 15 names come off the list, successfully housed, Bickford said.
For Schwab and Patel, the disappointment of again leaving behind their man in the wheelchair was balanced by the face of a woman who greeted them when they got back to reStart’s housing center.
She was homeless and they had met her with the Crisis Intervention Team officers earlier that morning in south Kansas City. Now here she was, having already used the bus pass they offered her.
She was warm, with a bed waiting at a shelter, and taking the first steps toward possible permanent housing.
The outreach workers high-fived over that.
So many of the people they try to see — “those who are more likely to die on the streets,” Patel said — might say they’re willing to take shelter.
“But follow-through is difficult,” he said.
The agencies immersed in these puzzles are willing to take on harder, more unreliable cases, holding beds open that could be more easily filled.
“It’s a longer wait for some people (seeking aid),” Schwab said, “but a life-saver for some people.”
When grace came, the Wilkinses were sitting side-by-side on the stone wall of the same channel that nearly drowned them.
It was sometime about 4 a.m., July 25, 2015, two weeks after the flood.
They sat, dangling their feet over the edge under a beautiful predawn sky, Willard holding what would be his last 24-ounce bottle of Camo beer, LaVette holding what would be her last bottle of whiskey.
Here was love “I’d never had,” Willard said. “And I was dragging her down in my cesspool.”
At times they’d worked so well together, tiling floors, wiring lights, working for home-flippers whom they knew, only to be horribly underpaid because the employers knew they were desperate for alcohol money and had no recourse.
He’d seen her slip out of the woods on those mornings she was working at a McDonald’s, sneaking a bath in the restaurant’s sink before taking her post at the counter.
Their days were given, as LaVette said, to “hustling and drinking.” His first mission often had him scoping sidewalks and curbs for smokable cigarette butts — sometimes his skin itchy and eaten up when that night’s woods hideaway dealt him poison sumac.
No more. Never again. He held that last beer bottle at arm’s length. The sky was beautiful.
“I’m done,” he said.
He spent four days in a detox program. She spent some of that time in the library looking up shelter options. And then they got off the bus together at reStart.
Laura Wonderlin, a case manager there, took them in and scored them. Their numbers were high because of where they’d been living and their history of severe substance abuse.
But they came with “this drive, this will to succeed that catapulted them after what they wanted,” Wonderlin said.
With them, the work ahead that is so hard — sobriety, mental health, winning the confidence of landlords, getting jobs — seemed imminently possible.
‘Spirit of hope’
The agencies’ mission is now named Zero 2017.
That means, if successful, Kansas City would experience no one without access to housing by the end of next year.
It’s a “functional zero.” Because there will always be new people drifting in. And there will be people who are not severely imperiled who will refuse help.
For now, the 62-year-old man in his wheelchair remains among the counted, still likely to be found outside around the park.
Patel’s wish — that he accept shelter, accept case management and get into supportive long-term housing — remains a wish.
But Willard and LaVette are home now in the bottom apartment of a three-unit house in Independence. They both work in restaurants — that is, until LaVette went on maternity leave this fall.
They have a 6-week-old son, Justin, born Oct. 13.
They can’t believe it sometimes — where they are and where they were.
“My goodness, Mama,” Willard said to LaVette. “How did we put ourselves through that and survive?”
They hope to bring courage to others, and Wonderlin thinks they will.
“Just to know where they were one-and-a-half years ago,” she said, “it captures such a spirit of hope.”