Two houseless people found dead during cold weather over New Year’s weekend in KCMO

Brynn Laurel

1/3/2021- Kansas City, Missouri

Local activists stand across the street from Mayor Quinton Lucas's residence on December 31 2020 in Kansas City, Missouri

Photo by Andrei Stoica

“How many of our friends are going to have to die before they decide that they’re going to make a change?” is the question Lindsey Cattanach of Free Hot Soup--along with other houselessness advocacy groups--is asking of the city following two deaths of houseless individuals over New Year’s weekend. The deaths come on the heels of city sweeps of houseless camps in Kansas City, Missouri.

The first person, who went by “Sixx,” was found dead on Friday, January 1 with the second discovered by volunteers from Free Hot Soup performing a wellness check on Sunday, January 3. The second individual was found inside an abandoned building, and their identity has not yet been released, although volunteers reported that the body was nearly unrecognizable. Police confirmed that the most recent sweep of houseless camps was December 26.

Sixx has been described as a kind, loving person who loved animals, especially his dog, Debo.

Cattanach said she didn’t know him personally, but several other members of Free Hot Soup did. “Everything I’ve heard about is him laughing and having a good time,” she said. “He was a very loving and kind individual, and he really cared about animals.”

Cattanach said she wasn’t sure if Sixx had been in the camp during the most recent sweep, but confirmed that he had been in the camp for several sweeps in recent months.

“I know that his area has been swept multiple times,” she said. “He has been hit with frostbite multiple times, so it was hard for him to walk around...I believe that all the sweeps were a cause of his death.”

Cattanach also said it was a member of her team who was first contacted regarding the second death this week. The name of the individual has not been released, but Cattanach said a houseless friend reached out to a member of Free Hot Soup.

“One of our volunteers got a phone call to go check on someone in this abandoned building,” Cattanach explained. “She did, and when she got there, she found him deceased.” The volunteer then called the police, who confirmed the death. They have not yet released the name.

City Failures in Addressing Houselessness

Cattanach stressed the negative impact of multiple, intersecting failures in the city’s response to houselessness, starting with the sweeps.

“The problem is they’re taking away all of their elements of survival,” she said. “I have many, many friends down there (in the camps) that have been affected by the sweeps.”

She said that often, her houseless friends will be at appointments with caseworkers or mental health professionals, or be trying to get ID or other resources, and sweeps will occur while they’re gone.

“They come back, and their whole area is destroyed,” Cattanach said.

Although city officials have said the sweeps also aim to offer assistance to houseless individuals, including referrals to shelters, Cattanach said these resources are severely lacking.

“You can keep pushing them out of their (camps), but until you provide them with a safe place to go, this isn’t going to be solved,” she said. She recounted a host of barriers her houseless friends have shared in seeking shelter in Kansas City, ranging from shelters not accepting people with pets, like Sixx, to many shelters not accepting those with mental health issues or medical conditions.

“That knocks out the majority of people that we serve,” Cattanach said.

Even if her houseless friends are eligible to stay in a shelters, Cattanach said cutoff times--requiring houseless individuals to call by a certain time in order to be eligible for a spot in a shelter--along with overcrowding and understaffing that leads to high rates of drug use, theft, and rape in shelters, often causes her friends to avoid shelters.

And if they’re eligible and want to stay in a shelter, Cattanach said the barriers still aren’t over. COVID-19 has reduced capacity for many shelters, leading to many instances of Cattanach and her team spending hours on the phone trying to find shelter for one of their houseless friends, only to be told repeatedly there is no room. Even if they can get placement, barriers such as mobility issues due to repeated instances of frostbite also pose substantial barriers to houseless individuals being able to get to a shelter safely.

“Stop the Sweeps”

For Cattanach stopping the sweeps on houseless camps should only be the start of the response from the city.

“All that seems to be happening is (saying) ‘we need to get them out of here, let’s push them out of here,’ and that’s not fair,” she said. “We all deserve the same amount of humanity regardless of where we live. I should not get more humanity just because I live in a house than my friend who lives under a bridge.”

Cattanach said she wants the city to rethink the way it addresses houselessness.

“I would like for the city to at least say, ‘hey, let’s have a conversation about this,’” she said. She said that conversation would need to include the mayor but also waste management and parks and recreation as well as the health department, all of whom have contributed to the violence against houseless individuals in the city.

Most importantly, however, Cattanach said Kansas City’s houseless community needs to be at the table to develop support systems that would actually work for them.

“I can speak for them all day, but they have a voice,” she said. “They are not voiceless.”

Activists Address Houselessness

Activist and community organizer response to the deaths has been substantial, ranging from protesters connected to Creative Innovative Entrepreneurs gathering outside Mayor Quinton Lucas’ residence on December 31 in response to the sweeps in order to bring awareness to the risk from winter weather to email campaigns and open letters to the mayor. KC Tenants, which works on housing rights, is holding an anti-evictions protest on Thursday, January 7.

Other groups, like Free Hot Soup, work to provide food, hygiene products, blankets, and other necessities on an on-going basis. Cattanach said their group is intentionally not a non-profit, nor is it religiously or politically affiliated. She said their group hosts picnics, generally in parks, and also has a team that actively seeks out houseless camps to offer help, resources, and connection.

“A lot of the houseless community has come to rely on our picnics as a safe place,” she said.

She said Free Hot Soup maintains a volunteer base of food donors, mobile response volunteers, and servers, as well as using donations and Amazon wishlists to get the supplies they need to serve their houseless friends.

Published on: 1/5/2021