On a recent evening as the sun went down, Johnson County volunteers Amy Stewart and Dallas Bauer stopped in an Olathe McDonald’s parking lot to distribute blankets, hand-warmers and tuna packs to a handful of single, childless adults with no home to go to that night.
They met with Lisa, 58, who has been living in her car since Thanksgiving. Roger, 42, who has been without a home for six months. And Fig, 50, who has been camping outdoors and has lost several fingertips to frostbite.
Lisa has recently gotten a Waffle House job and is trying diligently to improve her life. But it's a big challenge.
“I need a place,” she said. “I can’t keep working and living out of my car.”
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They are examples of a growing problem in Johnson County, which has an excellent shelter for families dealing with homelessness but no stable shelter options for single adults without children.
The problem was highlighted in the recent “point in time” count, an official snapshot tally conducted by homeless service agencies across the nation, including in Johnson County, for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
It showed Johnson County’s count of “unsheltered” individuals jumped from 17 last year to 38 in January, the highest number since 2012. And while Kansas City, Wyandotte County and Lawrence provide emergency housing for unsheltered adults without children, Johnson County does not.
“I think it’s shameful,” said Barb McEver, who joined with a small group of community volunteers to create a grassroots cold weather shelter in Olathe, open on the most frigid winter nights.
She and other community activists say it’s time for the richest county in Kansas to create a year-round space for adults to live for a few months and stabilize their lives, especially because the county’s homeless numbers aren’t overwhelming.
“It is so doable,” McEver said. “We keep brushing it aside.”
Those experiencing homelessness in Johnson County say they’re eager to improve their situations, but it’s hard to gain a foothold after they’ve stumbled. Most spoke with The Star on condition that their last names not be used.
Lisa had been living with her sister in Overland Park but was kicked out last fall because she was drinking too much. She accepts responsibility for that but says she has quit drinking and is trying to pull her life together.
She bought a 2002 Chevy Blazer with the last of her retirement savings. She can shower at the Salvation Army but not stay there. She has recently started work as a waitress but is weary of sleeping in the few Walmart parking lots that allow cars to stay overnight.
“I’m trying to do better, but it’s hard,” she said.
Identifying the unsheltered
This year’s homeless point-in-time count measured people living in emergency shelters, transitional housing, in tents or cars or who were otherwise “unsheltered” on the night of Jan. 23. The count identified 168 individuals in Johnson County, up from 130 in 2017.
This year’s count for Jackson and Wyandotte counties hasn’t yet been released, but it totaled 1,671 last year, including 229 unsheltered.
Johnson County's unsheltered ranks included working people, three young adults, four veterans and other men and women in their 40s, 50s and even into their 70s.
“This is Johnson County’s responsibility,” said Valorie Carson, a director with United Community Services of Johnson County who helps oversee the county’s annual homeless count for HUD. “We need to be responsive to the needs of our residents as opposed to relying on adjacent counties around us."
Evie Craig, who runs Kansas City’s reStart homeless services agency that often takes in people who cross the state line, agrees Johnson County needs to step up to the plate. Especially because it’s a wealthy county and its homeless population is manageable.
“Their numbers are small and because of that, they’re even more compelled to take care of it,” she said. “Why should the rest of us?”
The count is increasing in part, Carson said, because Johnson County is doing a better job of seeking out those dealing with homelessness. But the numbers are also growing, she said, because affordable housing units are dwindling and evictions rising.
"It's increasingly difficult to find what you would call a second-chance landlord," she said.
The numbers also reflect people with low-paying jobs in the county who want to stay nearby, and people estranged from their families but whose community ties are in Johnson County. Mental illness, physical illness and substance abuse often complicate those challenges.
McEver has found that if people's basic shelter needs aren't met, it's difficult for them to think beyond the next 24 hours.
"If you are living on the streets, you will do things to get you through the day," she said.
Johnson County mental health advocates recognize the growing need, said Elijah Buchholz, a county mental health professional and board member of the Johnson County Continuum of Care, a coalition of organizations working on the problem.
"What we really struggle with is someone living on the streets. There's nowhere short term to place them," he said, adding that the crisis shelter is increasingly on the county's radar as a problem that needs to be tackled.
Robert, 55, says Johnson County Mental Health has helped him with rides and money for short-term hotel stays, but he still struggles. He worked as a carpenter for 33 years but says he was evicted two years ago from his Mission apartment after a client stiffed him for thousands of dollars on a job.
He’s had a few maintenance and security jobs in the county but hasn’t found sustainable employment or shelter. When he's out of options, he sleeps under the trees on a piece of cardboard behind a Shawnee CVS store.
Recently, Johnson County Mental Health paid for him to stay a few weeks at an Olathe Rodeway Inn. But Robert fears that temporary help is ending. He's hoping a recent interview for a nursing home maintenance job will pan out, but it's still uncertain.
"I hate living like this," he said.
Family, cold weather shelters
The county has a Salvation Army emergency shelter with comfortable units for families with children, where they can live for about three months. Known as the Johnson County Family Lodge, it's always full and currently houses 15 adults and 25 children.
Mina Foster, the facility's case manager, said the family lodge restores dignity and hope. She said single men and women without children could benefit from the same emergency shelter option, but it's not currently available.
Amy, a 48-year-old single mother, described how the Family Lodge was a godsend after she had a heart attack last year. She and her son had been living in a motel, but after she got sick, she lost her job as a dishwasher and could no longer afford the room. They wound up living under a bridge in Gardner for more than a month last fall, because it was close to her son's school.
"Living under a bridge is scary," Amy said, wiping away tears as she recalled the ordeal. Their few possessions, including blankets and pillows, were sometimes stolen.
Fortunately, her son's school referred them to the Salvation Army family shelter last fall. With resources and mentoring help from the Salvation Army, she's found an apartment that she can afford, and they will soon move.
"I'm just so blessed and grateful for a place such as this," Amy said.
Recognizing the need for such services for adults without minor children, McEver and Dean Askeland, another community volunteer, bought cots and blankets and created a grassroots cold weather shelter three years ago. With other volunteers, they operate out of Neema Community Church in Olathe when the temperatures dips to 20 degrees or lower at night.
The first year, McEver recalls, they averaged seven people per night over 15 cold nights. But this winter they averaged 20 people per night over 34 nights, and one night hosted 33 people.
McEver, whose family co-owns Olathe Ford, also assists those in need with transportation, short hotel stays and other support. She's helped several people find permanent housing, and has witnessed the positive transformation that makes in their lives.
She’s planning again for next winter's cold weather shelter but says a year-round place should be a county priority.
“We have all kinds of services for children and families,” she said. “I work with adults that don’t have minor kids. I get phone calls every day year round.”
Amy Stewart, director of the Open Arms ministry at Olathe’s Indian Creek Community Church, says Johnson County's homeless adults are very motivated to improve their lives but are often at their wits' end.
She’s personally interacted with more than 50 different adults in the past few months, including an 83-year-old mother and her 66-year-old daughter from Lenexa who got by on Social Security and disability payments. They could no longer afford their rent and were living in their car with two little dogs.
“There’s really nothing for them,” Stewart said.
Lee Jost, a Johnson County pastor and social services provider, is working with McEver, Carson and others in the Continuum of Care on solutions.
The most concrete progress is for a transitional shelter for those aged 18 to 21 who are homeless or aging out of foster care. reStart, a Kansas City-based agency, recently won a five-year grant for nearly $200,000 per year to serve up to 10 college-aged youths specifically in Johnson County.
Jost said a private funder has purchased a duplex near Ridgeview Road and Sheridan Street in Olathe. It should be ready for occupancy by June. Residents attend school or work and can stay up to 18 months. A similar 14-resident facility operates in Kansas City’s Waldo neighborhood.
But the adult housing crisis center, Jost admits, is a more elusive goal. He's seeking a place for about 18 adults to live for several months and find some stability. Advocates are working on a business plan and fundraising but also are appealing for community help.
“We need a physical space where we can house this,” said Jost, who scouted one property but found it was too expensive. He's looking for something in a commercial area that could provide decent living units, adding, "We don’t want to just shove people into a large dormitory-style room.”
A lonely existence
David Hass has been living in a tent in Olathe since November. Hass, a 1980 Shawnee Mission West graduate, has led an eventful life, with highlights on his Facebook page that even reflect his eight-season stint in California as a stand-in for David Hasselhoff on "Baywatch."
He moved back to Overland Park with his son in 1997 to be closer to his parents and worked a variety of IT jobs, including with H&R Block and Gateway.
But after his mother died, he became estranged from his father and son and got kicked out of the family home in fall 2015. He admits he had not saved for the future. He's currently living in a camp in a secluded Olathe field.
Hass says Olathe has good services and welcoming churches, community meals, ample clothing closets and other convenient gathering spots, including the downtown library and the Center of Grace in a Methodist church.
But those facilities are locked at night. Options are all-night McDonald's or Walmart outlets.
What’s needed, Hass said, is something open year-round, where people needing help can stay for a few months, get mentoring, and get their lives back on track.
"What's really lacking is some sort of a place where you can place yourself," he said. "You can't be in a city park after 11 p.m. You have no place where you can legally be."