“I’m homeless due to COVID,” T* explained through his mask, trying to stay awake after many prior sleepless nights. “I felt like my landlord was out to get me. I was put out in August,.”
A month or two later, he explained, that the same landlord was gone. T said that while he never signed a document in agreement with COVID-19-related guidelines, he was displaced due to “breaking the rules,” which his landlord alleged had been posted in a communal area of his apartment building.
Another man, W* now experiencing houselessness for three and a half years, described staying in a friend’s truck the night before; however, he “hardly slept” due to the freezing cold. Both men found themselves at the Scott Eicke Warming Center, learning about it “by word of mouth.”
On the early evening of January 14, within an hour of receiving approval from members of Kansas City, Missouri City Council and Parks and Recreation and after advocating for days, Anton Washington, founder and director of Creative Innovative Entrepreneurs, opened the Scott Eicke Warming Center inside the gymnasium of the Garrison Community Center. Within the first week, the center was seeing people lined up outside the door at 6 p.m. as it opened.
Whether guests came to seek refuge and warmth, to be able to sleep more comfortably at night, or to receive the two or more meals per day the center provided, the center rapidly filled with Kansas City residents experiencing houselessness.
Washington’s goal was clear: he wanted to see no more deaths caused by the dropping temperatures. The center was named in honor of Scott Eicke, a man who, over the weekend of New Year’s, died from hypothermia after a recent camp sweep—stripping him and others of their property needed to survive such harsh weather conditions.
Since its inception, the Scott Eicke Warming Center has been “run by activists who fight for the rights of all people,” stated Sheryl Ferguson, founder of ItsTime4Justice. She said the same activists who occupied City Hall over the summer, alongside many individuals experiencing houselessness, where a sense of “comradery was created, because they were on the grounds with us.” She said the occupation created a drive for actions aimed at community outreach.
Many guests at the warming center said they have felt safe staying there. One guest, A*, noted that, in addition to limited capacity as a result of COVID-19, he had experienced discrimination at many established shelters in the city. Many people “aren’t allowed in” because of difficulty with substance use, or even due to one’s sexual orientation or gender expression, he explained. A, after experiencing houselessness for about ten years, notes that “it’s gotten worse in the last five years,” and that staff at particular shelters can assume someone’s sexual orientation or occupants may be encouraged “to point people out” who do not identify as heterosexual, thus not allowing them to access shelter. He stressed the need for city officials to begin tackling the houselessness crisis in Kansas City.
Warming Center Expands, Moves Locations
After over two weeks of operating, volunteers realized that the physical capacity of the Warming Center was not substantial enough to meet the needs of those seeking refuge. In particular, they faced difficulty adhering to social distancing and COVID-19 protocols, despite approval to waive these safety protocols by City Manager Brian Platt. Instead, after ongoing advocacy by Washington and his team, city officials granted permission for the center to move locations.
On January 29, the warming center moved to Bartle Hall. As a result of this move, the Scott Eicke Warming Center has been able to accommodate the needs of the city to temporarily address the housing and houselessness crisis in Kansas City, by ensuring safety, warmth, shelter and food during freezing temperatures.
The center is still a temporary solution, activists point out, and many occupants have expressed interest in more stable housing. Many individuals staying at the warming center self-identify as veterans, such as E*, who had served with the military for years, before returning home to be met with barriers to care. Although more veterans are housed today, there remain racial disparities for those accessing services. While at the Scott Eicke Warming Center, E, a Black man, connected with was introduced to the Community Veterans Project for the first time.; he expressed excitement as he grabbed his phone to call for an appointment, as he “had never heard of this before.”
Unhoused individuals who experience difficulty with mental health or co-occurring substance use, are often limited with resources. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated these barriers, or even caused houselessness. Even someone like K*, who has been sober for several years, explained how he had lost his long-term job in the restaurant industry due to the pandemic. He stated that he is able to work, but has been unable to secure employment, despite having “put in applications to three jobs” earlier that day.
Many of those who have been turned to the streets after being released from prison also face barriers to housing.
For example, one man, J, stated that he was released from prison, given five dollars, a pair of shoes that were too small and a one-way train ticket from Springfield all the way to Kansas City. J said he had hoped to go a shorter distance, to a town only an hour outside of Springfield, to reunite with his family and his support network. Instead, he is now trying to gather funds to get himself there on his own.
Many guests have described the heartbreak of watching luxury housing and apartments being built all over the city. They have simultaneously expressed the need to access vital resources, including lower income housing, to be able to resolve these issues within the city.
Yet, the volunteers and activists who have dedicated many sleepless nights, as well as their own unpaid labor, resources and money, said they plan to continue advocating for the people both within and beyond the warming center.
“As we grow with each other, we learn from each other,” Washington explained. He said he is “sick and tired of living in a city that feels like we [the people] are less than, because they [city officials] hold higher positions.”
As he spoke about the houseless guests whom he, volunteers and activists have helped keep warm and fed, he stressed the importance of coming together as a community to see actual change. “My life has been changed because of them,” he said.“We cannot overlook them.”
Troy Robertson, community activist and founder of HONK and one of the leaders at the Scott Eicke Warming Center, seeks to end houselessness in Kansas City.
“I play a major role because I’m a part of this houseless community . . . [and] been helping the homeless for a very long time,.” he said. He explained that, for several years, he has “been feeding and clothing the homeless everyday during my protests” for peace and to end police brutality.
Robertson sees “change for my community. I see people that were never given the chance to voice their opinion--for help they need.” He says the only barriers to his mission are the “people thinking they know what [the] houseless community needs, instead of actually having somebody know what’s needed out here.”
“I have a passion for seeing my [houseless] community do something different. Something that makes us stand out for the better of the world, because everybody needs a little help,” Robertson stated. “I see them leveling up.”
*This story uses initials in place of names to protect the privacy of the individuals who shared their stories with us.