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Overnight warming shelter in Kansas provides valuable service on frigid New Year’s night

By BETSY WEBSTER

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    KANSAS CITY, Kansas (KCTV) — As temperatures dropped into the single digits on New Year’s Day, about a dozen men and women sat inside a convention center loading dock, warmed by industrial heat lamps in the concrete ceiling above them, waiting to be checked in for a place to sleep. It was so quiet that you could hear the hum of the lamps.

It’s not the bustle one might picture with the phrase homeless shelter.

“It meant a lot for them to open this for people that don’t have nowhere to go, especially when it’s cold,” said Lonzo Barber, who is currently without a permanent home.

The weather-specific shelter at the former Jack Reardon Convention Center was briefly embroiled in controversy when the mayor said he wouldn’t allow it to open. Cross-Lines, the community group that opened the shelter, managed an overnight, cold-weather shelter in another location last winter then had to scramble to find a new location this winter. They secured the spot just three weeks before the cold hit. The mayor backed down when they made it clear they had a contract and wraparound services in place.

Lonzo Barber was one of nine people who stayed there Friday night, its first night open. Saturday night, 19 people found their way there.

Barber was eager to take us through the meticulous check-in process.

“Now at this station, they’re going to ask you to take everything out of your pockets and put it in one of these baskets,” he said, pointing to small plastic baskets at a folding table in the hallway of the old convention center.

He pointed us to larger bins around the corner, where all his stuff went.

“They ribbon tie it and it got your name on it,” he specified.

Then the staff got him sleep clothes – a sweatshirt, sweatpants, and washable rubber slippers. He changed in the bathroom then placed his street clothes in the large bin for safekeeping.

He took pleasure in remarking that the sleeping at eating area was the “ballroom” when it was a convention center. Paper New Year’s hats sat on dining tables. On the carpeted area were a row of tiny, single-person tents.

“Each one of them get a blanket. And each one of them also gets a mat. This is the mat. And it’s very soft and comfortable. I slept like a baby.”

The tent pods were purchased for the previous location last winter. The purpose was to create physical barriers because of COVID, but they ended up bringing additional benefits like quiet, privacy and fewer behavioral conflicts.

“If someone is in their tent, and talking to themselves in their tent, or having their own issues go on that’s not involving other guests, and therefore it mitigates any of those fights that could break out,” explained Amber Holmes, one of the program directors.

There’s room for more than just 35 tents, but the small scale is by design. It’s helps them to be able to provide personal attention from their mental health and housing specialists.

It’s the only overnight shelter in Wyandotte County, but it’s not a permanent one. It’s open only on nights below 25 degrees, from 6 p.m. – 7 a.m.

By 8 p.m., an hour before the doors closed, nearly all of the guests were in their tents, conked out. One sat at a dining table talking to the group’s housing specialist about what options might be best.

Holmes was glad to hear from so many of their guests how welcomed they felt, but said the staff also works to make sure they don’t get many repeat guests.

“We don’t want you here tomorrow night,” she said. “As much as we love you and want you to feel welcomed, we also want to see a better solution than this.”

The intake form guests fill out when they arrive provides staff with a way to check-in with them after they leave.

Holmes said last winter at their other location, they housed at total of 120 people on the city’s coldest 25 nights and connected 70 of those people to long-term housing resources.

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