Editorials

Citizen of 2015 finalist Kar Woo: His odyssey from selling art to saving lives

Kar Woo, founder and director of Artists Helping The Homeless.
Kar Woo, founder and director of Artists Helping The Homeless. Special to the Star

They crossed paths near the doorway of the Welcome House, a temporary home in Kansas City for addicts working on recovery.

Kar Woo, a wispy figure in black jeans and a knee-length black coat, was entering the place to pay a resident’s monthly rent. The other man, who looked to be in his 20s, was headed out, carrying a duffel bag.

“Where are you going?” Woo asked.

“Oh, I got kicked out,” the younger man said.

“Why?”

“Dirty UA.”

That would be a failed urinalysis, or drug test, and bad news for the man and for Woo, who had already helped him through detox and into a bed at the Welcome House.

“Could you wait a minute?” Woo asked.

This is Woo’s style. He doesn’t bark orders or heave exasperated sighs, although heaven knows that 16-hour shifts working with homeless, mentally ill and substance-abusing individuals give cause to do so. But Woo, whom The Star’s editorial board has selected as one of its “Citizens of 2015” finalists, is unfailingly polite and soft-spoken.

Kar Woo talks about his career transition from selling art to changing lives.

He ducked into an office to consult with the night supervisor. Sometime between checking out of a hospital around 1 p.m. and taking a drug test five hours later, the young man had scored some methamphetamine.

Woo picked up one of his two mobile phones and speed-dialed a detox center. “I’m just curious,” he said. “Do you have an opening for a male bed?”

They did. So Woo and his assistant, Jesse Jennings, sat down to persuade the young man to check in.

They told him he’d hit a speed bump, that one slip didn’t spell failure. They pleaded with him not to go out on the streets.

“You’ve come so far,” said Jennings, who himself was a near end-of-the-line addict when Woo met him at a psychiatric hospital and began working with him about five months ago.

Seeming ashamed and dubious, the man finally consented. He piled into Woo’s Dodge van — it boldly advertises “Be the Change” — for a ride first to Truman Medical Center and later a downtown detox facility.

If there is one thing that does try Woo’s patience, it is when people refer to his work as “a transportation service.” Maybe things started out that way some six years ago, when the brass at St. Luke’s Hospital proposed to Woo that he give rides to the homeless people who hung out in emergency rooms, since they seemed to know and trust him.

But a taxi merely can get people from point to point. Woo actually helps them. And he never gives up on anyone.

By now his story is fairly well known, at least to the people who work in hospitals, clinics, shelters, police stations, nursing homes and other such places around the Kansas City area.

How he came to the U.S. at age 19 from Hong Kong with $50 in his pocket, although no one is sure how long ago that was. Woo’s age is a closely guarded secret.

How he eventually settled in this area, where he earned college degrees in counseling and psychology while also operating art galleries. How he got to know homeless people while walking his Dalmatian around Mill Creek Park near the Country Club Plaza, and started selling pieces of his art to help provide them with food, shelter and other necessities.

Woo now runs a non-profit called Artists Helping the Homeless. He operates Bodhi House, a home in midtown that offers temporary shelter and support for up to a dozen adult men at a time. He coordinates weekly meals for homeless and hungry people near the Plaza and in Olathe.

And he spends most of every day, from 9 a.m. often until after midnight, helping people. Part of that involves, yes, giving rides. Woo’s non-profit owns two vans and employs three full-time drivers, all of them former clients who have reclaimed their lives.

They pick people up from hospitals, shelters and police stations and transport them to safe places. If the destination isn’t ideal, Woo gets on the phone to find a better situation. “I’m the safety net for the safety net,” he says.

“He really cares about people that a lot of society wishes would just go away,” said Jody Abbott, senior vice president with North Kansas City Hospital, which, along with St. Luke’s Hospital, provides grant money for Artists Helping the Homeless.

On a recent night, Woo and Jennings headed out at about 5 p.m. to St. Luke’s hospital, where Woo interviewed a 65-year-old man who had been evicted from his apartment in Independence.

The problem was housekeeping; the tenant had been too depressed to clean up. Now homeless, he planned to seek a spot in a shelter.

“Let me do some homework,” Woo said. “A shelter will not help you with your depression. A nursing facility would help you more. How would you feel about that?”

The man showed some interest. Woo has placed about 100 clients in nursing homes, and says about 90 percent have stayed. Most were men and women known as “frequent flyers” in hospital emergency rooms.

From there, Woo made a quick stop at a 24-hour Walgreens to pick up medication for one of the men staying at Bodhi House. Then it was on to the Welcome House, and the encounter with the client who had slipped.

After dropping the man off at Truman Medical Center, Woo headed for North Kansas City Hospital, where an alcoholic client was enjoying his third hospital stay in a day and a half. They agreed he, too, should get a ride to the detox center. First, though, Woo checked in on a couple of clients at Signature Behavioral Healthcare, which has a facility next to the hospital.

By now it was about 10:30 p.m., and a woman who had been kicked out of a shelter in Independence needed a ride to a shelter in Kansas City, Kan. Woo played Christmas music on the radio as the van headed east.

They detoured into a QuikTrip, where Jennings, who is 27, purchased a couple of hot dogs. Woo, who is rail thin, passed on the fare, but bought a carton of cigarettes, though he doesn’t smoke. “Sometimes that’s what it takes to keep people in care,” he explained.

At the shelter, the client climbed into the van with her young son. Woo asked no questions about her eviction. He dropped her off at a police station in Kansas City, Kan.

His final run of the night would be to give the man from the Welcome Center a lift from the hospital to the detox facility. The next day he would work on finding him more permanent housing.

Woo operates his nonprofit on an annual budget of $350,000, most of which goes toward fuel and upkeep on his vehicles, running Bodhi House and miscellaneous expenses, like springing for medication for clients or paying someone’s rent.

“No one ever pays me back,” Woo said. “But it’s worth it if they do well.”

Woo’s brain is always clicking with new ways to help people. His latest project is to convert a building on Gillham Road into about a dozen “micro apartments” for at-risk young people, and locate a medical office and dental clinic on the lower floor. He figures he’ll need about $650,000 to get the work done and is pitching the idea to hospitals, foundations and other groups.

His projects so far have been great community investments. St. Luke’s reported a 44 percent drop in emergency room costs in the first year of Woo’s program, and by some estimates he has saved hospitals, police departments, ambulance services and jails about $10 million since he founded Artists Helping the Homeless.

So far as anyone can tell, Woo is a pure humanitarian with a gift for circumventing bureaucracies and red tape and simply helping people. He is single and childless and works seven days a week.

“I’m a really good example of an immigrant who came here and gave back,” Woo said. An understatement, but absolutely true.

Citizens of 2015

With an assist from readers, The Star’s editorial board selected five people who have made a difference in 2015. Stories of the nominees will run this week on the Opinion page, and the Citizen of 2015 will be profiled on Sunday.

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