Apr. 5—A garbage truck rumbled by Monday morning, and Amanda Eisenmann eyed it with suspicion.
When a garbage truck arrives at a homeless camp uninvited, the community activist said, the camp often is not long for the world. Tents are destroyed, belongings dumped.
All Sunday night and for much of the day Monday, Eisenmann and at least 100 occupants of what has become one of the two most prominent homeless camps in Kansas City — a sprawling 30-tent camp at the intersection of Westport Road and Southwest Trafficway — as well as another 50-tent camp on the south lawn of City Hall, waited, on edge, with nervous anticipation at what they believed to be the impending "sweep," or removal, of both camps by order of Kansas City officials.
The camp at City Hall was set up at the start of February. The one along Westport Road arrived two weeks later, beginning on Valentine's Day weekend as winds whipped at minus 20 degrees below zero. Both camps expanded to become highly visible and public protests calling for Kansas City to find better, long-term solutions to housing the approximate 2,000 people without homes.
"What we know," said Eisenmann, part of a group known as the Midwest Homeless Collective, "is that the occupation at City Hall was given a written notice to vacate by today. And on that same day, we (at Westport) were given a verbal notice to vacate by the city on the same day.
"From what we know about sweeps of the past, is that they happen at any time, any moment, without notice. ... So we have been out here since about midnight just waiting."
Eisenmann, who helped set up Westport's "Camp 6ixx" — named for Scott "Sixx" Eicke, a 41-year-old homeless man found dead on New Year's Day — showed a written request to leave the City Hall lawn signed by "City Hall Security." She said the City Hall camp had been informed that it might be removed at about 3 p.m..
Asked by The Star about the city's plan, city spokesman Chris Hernandez did not specifically say when the camps might be removed, or even if they would be.
He instead took issue with the term "sweeps."
"We do not do 'sweeps' of the encampments in the way that you are referencing," he said.
"We will continue to do outreach, as we have for the last several weeks," he wrote, "offering services and helping with trash removal. Our number one goal is to make sure people who want help and services are able to get access to those services."
He noted that area shelters have room for people who are homeless.
"We will continue to work with local social service agencies to offer additional services such as counseling and health care," he wrote.
Eisenmann said that the camp in Westport had been given verbal notice to move by a cadre of representatives from the police, fire department, health department and Kansas City Parks and Recreation, which controls the green spaces around streets and boulevards.
Believing a "sweep" to be imminent, supporters of the homeless camp rented a U-Haul and storage space over the weekend to place stores of dry and canned foods along with clothes and other belongings that have been donated by the public.
A 20-foot, white banner was posted at the north end of the intersection, with a question: "What does it mean to sweep the houseless?" Beneath it, on another banner, multiple answers: To clear. Forgotten. Killed. To remove. To destroy. To dispose of. Exterminated."
At 6:30 a.m. at City Hall, at least a dozen members of the housing rights group KC Tenants gathered in the dark. Many bore the organization's logo: a bull on bright yellow shirts.
"Get ready to hold down the line," Mason Andrew Kilpatrick, a member of the organization, told the few dozen people gathered.
Encampment leader James Shelby, 60, who goes by the name Qadahfi, said that people were organized into three groups: communications, documentation and fencing.
One woman unwound a spool of green netting on the lawn across from the Kansas City Police Department as a barrier to protect peaceful protesters.
"We're trying to do the right thing," she said, "and there's a lot of people out there trying really hard to do that, and I think it's commendable."
She declined to give her name, but said that she had spent the last few months living between the City Hall encampment and the Scott Eicke Warming Center — the Bartle Hall winter shelter that opened in January and was also named for Eicke.
"We're learning how to grow, and how to better ourselves, and how to help each other out," she said. She said she thought that the city, overall, has been "very patient" with the occupation of its front lawn.
Organizers, who game together in January as the Kansas City Homeless Union, are calling on the city to find better and more long-term solutions for homelessness. Advocates also use the term "unhoused," noting that many people have homes, such as their tents, but what they really lack are houses.
Kansas City divvies up some $1.5 million in federal money each year to about two dozen organizations that help those who are unhoused. Nearly all are nonprofits that must raise the vast majority of their budgets on their own. This past year, in light of job losses because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development gave Kansas City an added $7 million grant to spread among organizations.
Advocates have floated one solution: give the homeless some of the city's abandoned homes or properties to fix up. In late March, the Land Bank of Kansas City did issue a request for proposals seeking nonprofit organizations to renovate land bank structures for unhoused people. The Land Bank has about 110 homes on its rolls. They frequently cost $40,000 or more to fix.
City Councilman Eric Bunch visited the Westport camp at about 11 a.m. He said he visited because he had heard complaints from residents, but he had also heard words of support.
"Hearing today that the sweep is possibly imminent, there is growing concern and folks are really nervous," Bunch said. "I promised to come down and see and talk to the folks who are living here and hear their perspective."
He said, he too had reached out to the city manager's office to see if a sweep was pending. The City Council has not come out with a unified statement on the camps.
"My position," Bunch said, "all along has been let's provide services and not jump to the first thing we offer is sweeping out a camp. That's traumatic for the folks who are living here. Also, we need to be mindful of the safety of the camp. And we need to be mindful of the safety of the neighborhood.
"If a sweep does happen, we've got or make sure that we're preserving people's belongings and we're offering alternatives. . . .We've got to make sure we're not simply just clearing people out. Then we're just scattering them and creating more drama in their lives."
Merchants nearby have been either supportive or patient, although few want to see a homeless camp in a public space become permanent. Some 20,000 to 30,000 vehicles pass the intersection daily.
Cooper Weeks, who owns the Old Westport Shopping Center, pulled up in his white Jaguar. Thefts at his tenants' stores have increased, he said. So have complaints about the camp's occupants using bathrooms, coming into stores and acting unruly.
"I'm worried that it's going to hurt the shopping center. People are not going to shop here because they just don't want to be close to it. Also this is the most dangerous intersection in midtown. There's going to be more accidents because of this."
They want the city to find a place with running water for the occupants that is safe and not in the middle of a busy intersection.
Shortly after 1 p.m., concern coursed through the Westport camp, when a phalanx of KC Public Works trucks showed up, as did a police Capt. Scott Simons. But the trucks were only there as a public health measure, to pick up mounting piles of trash, not to remove the occupants or their tents.
"All they're doing is picking up that trash, then everyone's gone," Simons told the camp's organizers. He spoke with Eisenmann, who said she felt deep concern to see the written notice saying that people on the lawn of City Hall would be arrested if they did not move by Monday.
Simons countered, "It said, 'may be arrested,' if I recall."
He shared that he did feel that the encampment was a "huge public safety concern," and said he had just recently passed a car not far away that, for some reason, had driven up on green space..
"This is a moment away from that happening and no one wants to see that happen, " he said. "This is not a safe environment." In this moment, however, he wanted them to know that they were just there to pick up trash.
Eisenmann persisted: "If we don't move from this space, will we be swept?" she asked
"I don't know," Simons said. "I'm not in a position to answer that. I'm not responsible for this piece of property."
Hernandez, the city spokesman, said in his email that recent City Hall efforts deserve recognition. He offered a long list that included:
— Increased utility assistance to prevent homelessness.
— Helping fund Save, Inc., to create Pride Haven as a 24-hour shelter for young people, ages 18 to 24, who identify as LGBTQ.
— Creation of a Houseless Task Force, a new city Housing Department and a tenants advocate.
— City has helped provided the City Hall camp with a portable bathroom and outreach services, even as problems have mounted, including violence.
"The City Hall location has been the site of several instances of criminal activity against other persons, as well as property damage," Hernandez wrote. "Weapons have been confiscated from this site including at least one firearm. Bodily fluids and other waste have covered the grounds, including City Hall air vents and the fountains, creating other health risks for those on site. That's why we have provided notice to them, including verbally during several outreach visits over several weeks."
As trash was being collected in Westport, Mayor Quinton Lucas stopped to talk to occupants of the City Hall camp. They shared their difficulties, with unpaid disability, the problems of moving forward in life with nagging police records. People again asked the mayor if a sweep was imminent.
"I'm coming back at 5 o'clock and I expect a bunch of people to still be here," Lucas said.
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