A pair of pickup trucks arrived first, their heavy engines rumbling, poised over the shack of pallet wood that separated April Hawkins from the Kansas City winter.
Horns honked. Fists beat on the wood panels.
“Ten minutes!,” an authoritative voice shouted at Hawkins and other people sheltering that morning in a trash-strewn, vacant lot in an industrial section of town — that’s how long they had to gather whatever belongings they could and get out.
A property manager, with the city’s support, had come to clear out the people living on this desperate-looking private property near 14th Street and Spruce Avenue.
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The men said the campers had been warned before to leave. Now, Hawkins said, the men threatened them: Get out or get run over by the trucks. They could get shot if it came to that.
Hawkins came out to face the men in wild despair. She had a cellphone and called 911. Police officers, the dispatcher told her, were already arriving.
So were city trash haulers.
The police weren’t coming to stop the action. They were to help see that it proceeded safely.
Another flashpoint exposed Kansas City’s community-wide dilemma with transient people who bed in the shadows of homes and parks.
Police say such camps are unsafe and unsanitary. Surrounding landowners and business groups want blighted properties cleared but want to believe that displaced homeless people will find services and shelter.
Advocates say there are many reasons some people can’t or won’t go to shelters — leaving them exposed like the campers at 14th and Spruce who were forced out the morning of Dec. 5.
Hawkins couldn’t gather up much. The material her girlfriend had accumulated to build the hut would be lost. So would some of the scrap they’d collected to sell for meager amounts of cash. One of the city’s employees, looking into Hawkins’ hut behind her, exclaimed in surprise:
They’ve got a wood-burning stove in here!
She’d have to come back to get these things, Hawkins said.
Sorry, a police officer told her, coaxing her off the lot. “It’s time for you to go.”
At that point, since they were on someone else’s private property — no matter how abandoned it may be — the homeless campers had few rights.
The property owner — Tutera Group in Kansas City — was acting at the urging of the Kansas City Police Department’s Community Interaction officers. The police previously had been asked by nearby businesses and residents to compel the property to be cleaned of its trash, and its campers.
“We don’t want to pick on people because they are homeless,” said John Weilert, a member of two concerned community boards, the Elmwood Cemetery Society and the Truman Road Community Improvement District. “It’s a bigger problem than that.”
Camper Tim Cole, 60, who said he has been homeless for five years, was leaving the camp with some clothes and blankets in an old baby buggy when he saw his self-made shack burning behind him, he said. He thinks someone among those forcing them out set it ablaze “to make sure I didn’t come back.”
Police said it was probably lit by one of the ousted campers.
Hawkins, 47, homeless for about a year, felt the eviction was carried out more roughly than she and others deserved. “We are people,” she said. “We have rights … They treated us like trash.”
The property manager, for his part, seemed stunned that the campers hadn’t long ago filed into a homeless shelter or dispersed somewhere other than this bleak terrain. The campers at 14th and Spruce had gotten warning weeks ago that they should leave.
His question to them: “Why are you still here?!”
Land the city forgot
Like many homeless camping areas, this one burrowed into a pocket of the city surprisingly close to busy, thriving thoroughfares.
Jackson Avenue, lined with active shops and light industry, lay a block to the west. Truman Road and all its traffic ran along the south. Elmwood Cemetery’s rolling acres bordered the area to the east. The BNSF railroad cut across the north.
Stuck in the middle of it all sat what Tutera Group’s Greg Hoefer called “an area forgotten by the city.”
At least Tutera is one of the ownership entities that the city or neighboring organizations can call about the land, said Weilert of the Truman Road CID. Many others are absentee owners.
Illegal dumping mounts on illegal dumping. Untended trees, shrubs and undergrowth swarm over broken fences.
“It appears abandoned,” Weilert said. “And that adds to the persistence of the camps.”
The fact that the dumping area is so close to Truman Road and 12th Street, with broad access to downtown and points east actually makes this neglected terrain ideal for business, he said.
Neighborhood business and residential groups want to get the message out: “It is not abandoned. People live here. People do business here.”
When the Truman Road CID talked of cleaning the area up, they spoke sympathetically about the campers living there, Weilert said. They talked about what resources are available to help them and the shelters that can take them in.
There are many generous services that help people in housing distress, said Marqueia Watson, program specialist for the Greater Kansas City Coalition to End Homelessness.
But what people don’t realize, she said, is that shelters that take people in without restrictions are often overcrowded. According to annual “point-in-time” counts, some 1,700 people are homeless in Jackson and Wyandotte counties — and on any given night more than 200 of them are not in homes or shelters.
Some of the people living outdoors prefer freedom from shelter rules. Some services require religious observances. Some are strict on requiring sobriety. Some people who are homeless may not feel safe in shelters because of other people’s attitudes about gender identity and sexuality.
When people who are homeless gather in secluded, makeshift communities, neighbors can quickly grow uncomfortable, Watson said.
If trash accumulates, or rats infest the area, if things are stolen, if evidence of drug use emerges — whether or not the people in the camp are responsible for it — the city will be pressured to move them.
Communities wrestle with what homeless advocates call the criminalization of poverty, Watson said, using anti-panhandling and anti-loitering laws, among others, to give police leverage to clear people out.
Neighborhoods are conflicted over what to do. The City Council earlier this year debated — and backed off of — a “pedestrian safety” ordinance that was actually aimed at curtailing curbside panhandling.
Kansas City’s health department cited food safety issues in November when it shut down large park picnics by Free Hot Soup KC that were feeding many homeless people. But some of the complaints from neighborhood groups against the picnics raised safety concerns over gathering transient people in the parks.
A few states have enacted “Homeless Bill of Rights” to codify some protections — most notably Rhode Island. Missouri in 2013 considered legislation that did not make it to the legislative floor, proposing many protections in the use of public space without discrimination on the basis of a person’s housing status.
In the recent clearing, the campers were on private property, which leaves them even less recourse if they are forced out and their belongings lost.
“To be honest, people who are homeless don’t have a lot of rights,” Watson said. “And it is very difficult for them to advocate for themselves.”
They have to “rely on the benevolence of the cops,” she said.
Kansas City Police Community Interaction Officer Greg Smith, who was at the scene of the camp clearing, said specialized officers like himself and social workers on staff at each of the police stations try to guide people who are homeless to services and shelters.
Camps like the one at 14th and Spruce strain communities and are unhealthy and unsafe, he said.
“There’s no running water,” he said. “There are feces around.”
“I wish people would take the services,” he said, “but many don’t.”
The kindness of friends
Where they’ve gone since the clearing of the camp, some of the homeless don’t want to say.
Some drop by the Cherith Brook Catholic Worker house, nearby on 12th Street, where they can use toilets, take a shower, get some food or drink some coffee — services that are mostly denied them in public spaces. Then they move on.
“Just anywhere I can lay my head,” 29-year-old Haynah Noear said of his plans for the night. “A friend’s shed. A bus stop. Wherever I won’t bother anybody and get some sleep for the night.”
Cole said he is also staying outside. He’s got a new camping spot, but he doesn’t want to say where, for safety reasons.
He doesn’t go to the shelters.
“I want the freedom out here,” he said. “To do what I want to do, when I want to do it.”
He would like to work again, he said. He was a plumber before he lost his job the last time.
Hawkins for now has found a friend who allowed her a place to stay. She has worked many different kinds of jobs over the years and she too would like to work again, she said.
She’s thankful for the kindness of friends. One of them was there at the clearing of the camp and tried to help collect things before the belongings disappeared in the city’s heavy trash trucks.
She surprised Hawkins, saying, “Look what I got.” There Hawkins saw her wood-burning stove.