In one Kansas City ‘cooling room,’ homeless people wait out heat while hoping for better days

Homeless people wait out heat in Salvation Army's 'cooling room'

Hot and homeless, Kansas Citians talk about life and relief in the Salvation Army's cooling room in Westport.
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Hot and homeless, Kansas Citians talk about life and relief in the Salvation Army's cooling room in Westport.

With the sun down, August’s sweltering air had cooled, if only a bit. Instead of sleeping, the homeless couple walked hour upon hour in the humid haze through a recent night under full attack by mosquitoes that welted their skin.

Keisha Phillips, 42, and her boyfriend, Leonard Davis, 34, would save their rest for a Salvation Army cooling room.

Doors open at 10 a.m. or earlier on Kansas City’s excessive heat days, when official heat advisories are in effect.

Last week, as temperatures climbed toward 100 degrees, Phillips and Davis pulled open the glass doors to the Salvation Army’s Westport office while morning drivers in air-conditioned cars traveling from air-conditioned homes to air-conditioned offices rolled past the building at 500 W. 39th St.

August’s heat and humidity are frequently brutal in Kansas City, but rarely more so than for the homeless who on days like this find themselves together in a relentless mission to escape it.

Exhausted from walking all night, Phillips, nicknamed “Chocolate,” and Davis — lean muscles beneath a white T-shirt, a black do-rag on his head — eyed a far corner of the cooling room, its cinder-block walls painted fire-engine red. Twenty metal folding chairs arranged in rows pointed toward a television playing decades-old shows on MeTV. On a folding table sat an orange jug full of cold water.

Phillips and Davis spotted a baseboard air-conditioning vent oozing cool air. They lowered their bodies to the vinyl tile floor and he cradled her, his front to her back, wrapping his arms around her shoulders.

They quickly fell asleep.

“On a hot day, most of our clients mostly are homeless,” Martha Monarrez said. She operates the front desk and keeps the daily log of visitors. As many as 20 homeless men and a few women gradually flow into and out of the cooling room.

“They just come in and sleep most of the time,” Monarrez said. “They get their sandwich. They get their drink. They just go into a little corner and make themselves comfortable.”

Most of the faces are familiar, known regulars on these days. Shops and restaurants tend to shoo the homeless away. Not all are always welcome at area homeless shelters.

“The problem is,” Monarrez said, “that a few of them that come may be using drugs, or may be using alcohol, or (have) some kind of substance abuse, or just mental illness. They make it bad for the rest of them that don’t suffer from those things.”

Doors close, she said, and the homeless don’t have many other places to go.

“We try to welcome anybody who comes in, you know. We do have our issues from time to time, but we do try to handle them in a respectful manner.”

She buzzed the glass doors open. Two people entered. One was a woman, her face flushed red by the heat. She was young, with a reddish-brown ponytail and dark-framed glasses, helping an older man maneuver his wheelchair.

A hospital cervical collar circled his neck. Bags of clothes hung from the wheelchair’s handgrips. On his chest he wore a panhandler’s sign, inked words on cardboard: “could u help me please. god bless u.”

Monarrez didn’t know either of them. Nor, in fact, did the woman and man know each other. Only moments before, inside a fast-food restaurant, she had seen him all but chased from the dining area and then struggling to make his way up the street.

She knew he was homeless. She felt for him, because as Samantha Messer would explain, at age 21, she also is homeless, and has been for nearly seven years, since age 15.

Broke, she had asked the restaurant for a cup of water. They turned her away. She left and saw the man rolling his chair along Broadway toward 39th Street.

“I saw him struggling,” Messer said. “And it’s really hot. And I’m hot, and I’m tired. And he’s in a wheelchair and he has so much stuff with him. Everybody’s just driving by, and walking by. I helped. Because I’m always wishing somebody would help me, and nobody does. And I’m lost and I don’t have anybody.”

So Messer took hold of the man’s chair and guided it to the cooling center. She sat. Men around her watched a TV western in silence. Others slept. She told her story, her voice strained, about how her mom died when Messer was only a few years old, of how that led to a childhood of abandonment, neglect and abuse, foster care.

By age 15, she had fled to the streets. She self-medicated, becoming a heavy drinker.

“For a long time I lived in my car,” she said. “I have tried to kill myself three times.”

A cut on her left wrist is covered by a dual tattoo of an infinity sign and semicolon, hopeful symbols, she thinks, that maybe the arc of her life can improve. A suicide attempt when she was 18 came close to taking her life.

“So, obviously, I took the hint: I’m not supposed to die yet,” she said.

In the midst of those days, Messer said, she got married, had a baby, got divorced. Her daughter, who lives with her father, is soon to turn 2. Her child is the only thing that keeps her going, she said. Compared to all she’s endured, she hardly thinks of the struggle caused by the heat.

“I kind of don’t feel very much,” Messer said. “... I’m kind of numb to an extent, naturally. I’m not on drugs, so, I mean, I’ve literally asked, like, therapists, ‘Is it possible to numb yourself mentally long enough to be physically incapable? Or is it because I’ve never had a chance to rest, never had time to cope or grieve or process?’ 

These days she sleeps on the streets or in shelters. She quit drinking when she was 20. Now and then she finds signs of hope.

“Walking down the sidewalk about a week ago, thinking about how much I hate my life, I look down,” she said. “This pin is face down on the ground.”

She reached into her backpack and pulled out a lapel pin: an illustration of a face, a finger to its lips, with the caption: “Shh, healing in progress.”

Messer looked up to the sky.

“I’m just like, ‘OK, God, again, thank you for showing me you’re there,’ ” she said.

‘I was a walking man’

Near the front of the room, the man in the wheelchair offered his name: James Poole.

“I wish I had a pool now,” Poole, 67, said in a gravel voice between bites of sandwich.

He looked neither left nor right but kept his eyes straight ahead as he offered a somewhat scattershot account of his life: A son dying at Christmas, a 2009 car wreck that robbed him of the ability to walk. Clots in his legs. Brace around his neck.

Before that, “I was a walking man,” Poole snapped. “A working man, every day.”

“They operated in July,” he said, then added something about a tumor in his brain, although he bore no bandages. “They tell me I got six months to live. I say, ‘You can’t tell me I got six months to live. You don’t run this place. Only one person runs this place. …That’s God.’ 

Awake by noon, Davis and Phillips ambled up behind.

“Hey, old man,” Davis said.

They knew each other, but the couple said they hadn’t seen Poole in forever. They had no idea what had happened to him.

“My son got killed at Christmas,” Poole said. No eye contact. No details.

“I’m sorry,” Phillips said. She wore jean shorts and an American flag tank top, and a large, gold dollar-sign earring dangled from her right ear. “My mom just passed on June the 12th.”

She explained that she and Davis had been homeless for about a year for reasons she chose not to discuss. She used to live in an apartment she called the “devil’s den,” not only for how lousy it was, but also, she claimed, because it was haunted.

“I’m not lying: ghosts!” Phillips said. “Hear ’em. See ’em. I swear to God. At night they used to knock on my door. I used to sleep with my door open. I moved out of my bedroom to the front room. I’m not kidding.”

She and Davis now live outside. They have a spot near St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, eight blocks away. Oppressive heat, she said, means moving at night, coming to the cooling center to sleep by day. When the center closes at 3:45 p.m., they move on and find the shade of a tree or bridge.

“I have to go to work at 12:30,” she said of her midday plan.

Soon after lunch, she was to go to a restaurant to do odd jobs like cleaning or painting in return for food and maybe a chance to work inside, away from the stifling heat.

Some, at night, try homeless shelters.

“I just started going to the library,” Phillips said. Some branches stay open until 9 p.m.

Ready for another day

Darryl Williams, 49, has been homeless for some 15 years. As he sat in the cooling center, he grew philosophical, blaming no one but himself for “bad choices.” He lost his wife and took up drinking.

He said he hoped to turn his life around.

“You condition yourself every day,” he said. “When you do this, you’re used to it. Your body is used to it. You have to have will power and push yourself. … So I gear myself up and with the help of the Lord, I make it everyday — in the sun, with all my bags and everything.

“Every morning I get up and I pray to the Lord to help me get along with the day. I get my mind together to do what I’m going to do. I get all my stuff together and I go on my mission. I go to all the places that offer cool air…

“Then, when the sun goes down, you got it. It’s all downhill now. Find yourself a tree or something. You’re ready for the next day.”

Hope for Phillips lay among her things in the form of her driver’s license and Social Security number — documentation she needed to take to Johnson County to try to get a voucher for federally subsidized housing.

“My struggle’s about to be over with,” she said confidently.

Until then, she will be staying up through the night, in the hopes of better days.

Eric Adler: 816-234-4431, @eadler