Critics say charities for hard-core homeless do more harm than good

A vat of hot chili sloshes in the back of the white panel truck on a cold winter’s night as Neal Jorgenson and his crew of Salvation Army volunteers set off to perform what they’ve always considered an act of charity. One that’s suddenly come under fire from Kansas City officials.

Feeding the hard-core homeless.

Meaning guys like Steve, a 56-year-old unemployed printer who refuses to stay in a homeless shelter or other regular housing, as local authorities would prefer.

“I won’t go into any of those places,” Steve says as he wolfs down a bowl of chili dispensed from the back of the Salvation Army’s Honk and Holler truck at its first stop of the night, in the east Crossroads. “I like where I’m at.”

For decades, Honk and Holler and programs like it have served meals on street corners, under bridges and near secluded campsites that the hard-core homeless call home.

Were it not for Honk and Holler and programs like it, Jorgenson says, these homeless, many of whom have substance abuse problems, would find it difficult to stay fed, clothed and warm through a Kansas City winter.

But that is exactly the point of the criticism voiced by officials at City Hall, the Kansas City Police Department and even some social service agencies.

Acts of kindness by possibly a dozen established organizations and church groups, as well as random individuals who hand out food and supplies to the homeless, are doing more harm than good, critics say.

To neighbors and police, the feeding programs and the homeless camps they sustain lead to unacceptable levels of trash, theft and vandalism in some parts of town, such as the old Northeast. One camp was leveled last month.

“It’s killing our wonderful neighborhoods and historic homes,” says Leslie Caplan, president of the Scarritt Renaissance Neighborhood Association.

On a more philosophical level, social service providers say the do-gooders handing out food and supplies are undermining the work they do, linking the homeless with housing aid, job training and substance abuse treatment.

“What they’re doing is enabling people to not seek services,” says Sean O’Byrne at the Downtown Council, which operates a service center for people in need of permanent housing. “Throwing a sandwich to someone in a park is getting redemption on the cheap.”

Those are the themes of a public education campaign now in the works at City Hall. It’s also the impetus for what could be a new set of regulations governing feeding programs like Honk and Holler, Uplift and other lesser-known groups with names such as Taking It to the Streets, Hope in the Streets and any number of church outreach programs that provide aid and comfort to the homeless.

Pretty soon, feeding the homeless in Kansas City without permission could be just as illegal as feeding the geese.

Which to Jorgenson’s way of thinking is a cruel and misguided approach to a problem with no easy fixes.

“I don’t see how giving them a meal and a blanket on a cold night like this is enabling them to stay homeless,” he says as his crew packs up to head for a dozen more stops where guys like Steve are waiting to fill their bellies.

“We are not enabling them,” Jorgenson says. “We’re keeping them alive tonight.”

Camp raid

At least four brick-and-mortar institutions near downtown provide meals most days of the week.

But for the hard-core homeless who don’t want to go to those places, they can count on a free meal every day of the week out on the streets.

For instance, on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, the Salvation Army and the Uplift Organization take turns making the rounds, though some days they overlap. On Thursday, the Vittle Van from Hope in the Streets shows up.

Fridays and on weekends, Taking It to the Streets joins in, along with church groups coming in from around town and from the suburbs.

The people handing out food from vans and the trunks of cars feel they are doing a good thing, plus it makes them feel good about themselves. After all, it’s not just the hard-core homeless they’re helping. Others may be on the street through no fault of their own.

“For our students and our church, it has become an amazingly beautiful thing,” says Harlan Harper, youth pastor at the Presbyterian Church of Stanley in Overland Park.

Concerns about the food giveaway programs have been simmering for years. They finally flared after last month’s eviction of an illegal camp spread across a garbage-strewn hillside below Kessler Park.

By no means was it the first time city crews have brought in trucks and bulldozers to clean up a homeless camp on public property. It happens a few times a year, whenever camps become a noticeable problem or neighbors complain.

What made this time different, however, was the size of the encampment — police say as many as 50 lived there. Then there was the city’s very public response. Officials alleged that the presence of so many people camping illegally on city property had led to an uptick in petty crime in the surrounding neighborhoods, piles of litter and the makings of a meth lab or two.

In a news release, City Manager Troy Schulte laid part of the blame on “well-meaning organizations, other than established providers, that feed and clothe transients who live in the parks and enable those who do not wish to take advantage of the support services that the community provides.”

Police and other social service agencies also publicly vented longstanding frustrations with the many church groups and nonprofits that hand out food, clothes and, in some cases, tents and tarps and other camping gear.

Both sides of the debate met privately last week at the Kansas City Museum. Among those attending were people who live near Kessler Park who have complained about the camps for years because of the trash and lack of sanitation.

“The neighborhood groups spoke with great passion,” says Evie Craig, head of reStart, one of the city’s main homeless service agencies.

The Scarritt Renaissance Neighborhood Association, in particular, has been pushing for a crackdown on the camps and the organizations supplying the camps and the homeless.

But Scarritt is by no means alone in the fight. Even folks who live in the River Market, West Side and north of the river have lodged complaints.

“It’s just out of control,” Caplan says.

Trash piles up

Neighbors have lots of complaints, says master patrol officer Jim Schriever of the Police Department.

Food handouts often result in lots of litter, particularly empty trays and plastic bottles near feeding sites. For instance, it cost $10,000 to pick up the mess on the slope across from Hospital Hill Park at 22nd and Oak streets a few years ago.

“The piles and piles of Styrofoam containers were just overwhelming,” Schriever says.

And now the mess is back again, despite the fact that many of those of who hand out food say they do their best to control littering by handing out trash bags.

“I’ll be honest with you, there’s a lot of trash,” says Scott Lamaster, head of the nonprofit Taking It to the Streets.

Another complaint is the lack of sanitation at food distribution points. Last summer, for instance, a large group of transients congregated across from reStart at Margaret Kemp Park, 10th and Harrison streets. Before a portable toilet was brought in, the area along the fence line was a bathroom.

Other cities have had similar problems and dealt with them by enacting ordinances regulating free food distribution without banning it outright.

In Dallas, for instance, groups that want to feed the homeless must first register with the city annually, enroll in food safety training, feed only in approved locations and provide trash pickup and portable restrooms.

No rules even close to that exist in Kansas City, though something could be on the way.

“It’s good work,” assistant city manager Kimiko Gilmore says of the mobile feeding programs, “but we do need to put some controls on it.”

If the result is anything like the Dallas approach, then it would cut way down on the number of small groups who now provide food irregularly, such as Harper’s youth group, which hands out cheeseburgers and water bottles one Sunday a month.

For better established groups like the Salvation Army, Red Cross and Uplift, it wouldn’t stop them from continuing their work, but it would be a hassle.

It’s not clear what the city’s proposal will end up being.

“I feel like the message has been pretty vague,” says Uplift president Joe Kordalski.

But whatever happens, he says, it won’t deter his group from continuing to serve anywhere from 60 to 180 people a night, depending on the time of year, out of Uplift’s three trucks.

“Our goal is to provide care and compassion to the homeless,” he says.