City conducts trash removal at unhoused encampments after activists had anticipated sweeps
On February 1, the KC Homeless Union set up a protest camp outside of City Hall. The union officially organized January 28, with a list of demands that includes water, shelter, jobs, and a seat at the table for the city’s decision-making surrounding unhoused people. In mid-February, the union set up Camp 6ixx in Westport. The camp—named in honor of an unhoused man who died during the freezing winter temperatures—was set up to establish a warming center for those in need and strengthen the bonds of the houseless community. Camp 6ixx grew to dozens of tents with an organized supply structure. Both Camp 6ixx and the City Hall occupation are entirely funded and supported by community members and allies.
“This community has developed a sense of safety and kindness and a rare place of both support but also the ability to feel safe putting their head down at night. The ability to sleep without fear should be a human right,” says Tom Kessler, an organizer and volunteer with the union.
Over the weekend, the camps were notified that they needed to evacuate both the City Homeless Union occupation, by April 4, and Camp 6ixx in Westport, by April 5. According to the fliers the city posted at the encampments, those that stayed in the locations past the set dates “may be subject to arrest and removal and any objects and trash will be thrown away.”
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Some of the people staying at the camps packed up their things and left, for fear of the camps being swept. The majority of camp residents decided to stay and defend their camp. In the face of arrest and removal of their belongings, and supported by KC Tenants and members of the community, the KC Homeless Union decided to stay past the date the city set for leaving the encampments.
In the past few days, the union and its supporters have been posting what a camp sweep really means to the unhoused. Over 100 people came out to support the houseless union over the weekend. KC Homeless Union and KC Tenants helped organize public resistance to the sweeps. As well, they put up signs around the camps, including one that says, “Where do we go?”
Organizers got word that rumored sweeps were expected to take place at both camp locations around 3 p.m. April 5. at the Westport location. People at the Westport location were told that city staff and sweepers were staging at both camps around noon.
“In addition to the violence of the sweeps, the city has gone out of the way to turn this situation into a type of psychological game,” says Ron Clark, an organizer with KC Tenants. “Unhoused individuals already suffer from distrust of authority and the uncertainty surrounding their conditions. There is no reason to agitate further with threatening language and sweep tactics akin to war games.”
At Camp 6ixx, a truck-load of bobcat bulldozers arrived near Westport Road after 5 a.m. The bulldozers were removed from the location around 9 a.m., but people at the camp did not know where the bulldozers were relocated to and were worried they would be brought back. According to the City Manager’s office, the bobcats on the flatbed were not city vehicles and were not connected to the trash removal. The bulldozers were not used or contracted by the city but bulldozers have been used in other cities when conducting sweeps, and community members feared the worst upon seeing the bobcats.
Different solid waste trucks were found idling in the parking lot of Dollar Tree, just across from Camp 6ixx. When asked by The Pitch, one of the trash removal workers said he was here for the forthcoming sweep. About eight city trucks were also spotted just across the street from the camp. This swiftly grew to nearly twenty, with more circling the park.
Police vehicles repeatedly buzzed all corners of the park—initiating lights and sirens, seemingly unrelated to any active pursuits but rather as a scare tactic. Protesters have reported that this tactic has been used at all hours of day and night. It was easy to see how visibly this served as a stressor for all involved.
Just after 12:30 p.m., city officials arrived at Camp 6ixx. Between 14-20 trucks arrived on the scene. Police officers began blocking off sections of Ward Parkway headed toward the intersection where the camp is located.
The city allegedly came to the camp to remove the trash. In response to earlier communication from officials, members of Camp 6ixx and those who came to show solidarity put the trash by the street in an effort to protect the homes and belongings of those in the camp. The group planned a human wall around the camp and there were volunteer medics with red bandanas ready if someone was injured during the city’s actions.
City officials did not speak to organizers as they inspected the camp for trash. Officials said they only wanted the trash and that the trucks were there to haul the trash away.
Captain Scott Simons with the KCPD was on the scene as a liaison between the police and the City Manager’s office. According to the Office of the City Manager, Simons is doing outreach with the encampments. However, neither Simons nor other workers would talk to organizers or answer any questions about what will happen next. Simons gave vague answers about providing services, but no definitive answers to questions—and certainly no answers about actions for the immediate future.
The Pitch reached out to Simons for a comment but has not yet received a response.
Officials began leaving the camp after they removed the trash. Organizers with KC Homeless Union say that they believe the officials were surprised by the number of supporters at Camp 6ixx. They believe that had there not been people here in public support for the camp, it would have been swept by authorities. Instead of a sweep, the camp was cleaned with Lysol, baking soda, and disinfectant—all provided by residents and volunteers.
A European tourist walking through the area asked journalists to explain—if the city was removing these people from their shelter—what their plan was for rehousing them. He failed to understand how there was no system in place to protect fellow human beings; something of a stark reminder of just how incomprehensible the city’s behavior appears to the outside observer.
At the KC Homeless Union camp in front of City Hall, Mayor Lucas arrived to speak with the occupants. However, organizers on the ground say that Lucas would not hold a meaningful conversation with them.
“He really just came down and heard people’s stories, but refused to stand in solidarity with any of the folks that are actually here,” says Jenay Manley, a leader with KC Tenants and supporter of KC Homeless Union. “It seems like the mayor and his team have been coming out, trying to persuade people to leave with resources. Which, we know these resources don’t work. The more media this gets, the more they seem timid to actually do the sweeps. We’ve had people who have been out all day with the KC Homeless Union, and plan to for the rest of the day.”
Organizers with KC Homeless Union and KC Tenants, as well as supporters of the unhoused population, have been up since 4:30 a.m. to protect the encampment against a sweep, according to Manley. People at the City Hall encampment have seen no sign of trucks or city officials coming to sweep, but fear that once supporters leave the sweep will begin.
“The fear is that once people can’t continue to show up that they’ll [city officials] try to show up and sweep it then,” says Manley.
In response to questions from The Pitch Chris Hernandez, director of city communications for the City Manager’s Office, confirmed that there were two trash trucks and about 11 city workers on the scene today, as well as Captain Simons. Though, only the two solid waste trucks were necessary for the trash removal.
“We probably would have needed only a couple, but they wanted to do the trash removal quickly,” Hernandez says. “And they were not sure how big the pile of trash would be until they arrived.”
Previously, trash removal has been conducted on an “as needed” approach, but members of the encampment and their supporters say that trash was frequently left to pile up at both Camp 6ixx and City Hall.
“Today our staff provided a box of trash bags and said they would come by twice a week when trucks are in the area,” says Hernandez.
News of regular trash removal comes as a win to the KC Homeless Union and people who live in the encampments.
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Hernandez detailed the city’s approach to alleviate homelessness. They have a three-pronged approach that involves working with non-profit partners and direct city action. The approach includes addressing immediate needs, creating long-term solutions, and outreach to the unhoused in the encampments to connect with them on social services.
However, organizers with KC Tenants and the KC Homeless Union say that the city has not worked with them or included them in discussions for their next steps. That’s one of the union’s demands, and they say that by not working with the people closest to the problem the city will never fix houselessness.
In addressing immediate needs, Hernandez listed the city’s distribution of millions of dollars in emergency rent and utility assistance for those who cannot pay their bills because of COVID-19. This effort is part of a $23 million effort to prevent homelessness. As well, they spoke of the Bartle Hall Warming Center that the city organized during the winter and sheltered hundreds of people over six weeks. The city also worked with local shelters to relax entrance requirements and opened Pride Haven, a shelter for LGBTQ young adults aged 18-24.
KC Homeless Union has repeatedly said that these are temporary fixes. Instead of investing in short-term shelters, the union says the city could invest that money into providing homes for the houseless and eliminating houselessness.
Among their long-term solutions, Hernandez mentioned the City’s new Land Bank Dollar Sale—the sale of more than 100 Land Bank homes to non-profits that will renovate homes, then rent them to the unhoused. The city is also creating a new Housing Department and plans to fully fund the Office of Tenant Advocate, a position that KC Tenants spent months fighting for.
Leaders with KC Homeless Union have still not been included in any of these proposed solutions.
“The City has provided cleaning services such as a port-a-potty and trash removal, at the City Hall encampment particularly because it started as a protest,” Hernandez in a statement to The Pitch. “However, the situation has moved beyond that of a protest and has become a public health and safety issue. That’s why we have provided notice to them, including verbally during several outreach visits over several weeks, that it is time for people to take advantage of existing services in shelters and at non-profit agencies who can provide help.”
The KC Homeless Union doesn’t want more shelters or funding to non-profit agencies. In their demands, the union wants direct action with the unhoused, water, shelter, jobs, and to be a part of the city’s decision. Those demands have yet to be met, and the union instead receives no substantive answers from the city.
“I know the media likes to use the word ‘sweep.’ but we don’t do sweeps in the way that you are writing about,” Hernandez says. “We will continue to do outreach to help people connect with the services they may need at local shelters and other non-profit agencies.”
The City Hall encampment sweep was rumored to be scheduled for later April 5. City vehicles and solid waste trucks were spotted on 10th Street near City Hall just after 3 p.m, when they began removing trash from the City Hall encampment just as they did at Camp 6ixx.
Around 5 p.m., Mayor Lucas met with Qadhafi, a leader with KC Homeless Union about the issues they face. During the meeting, the mayor committed to working with the union to secure municipal IDs for the unhoused. This would allow them to receive their stimulus checks and other resources that cannot be secured without proper identification. Lucas and Qadhafi also discussed the city’s Land Bank.
The mayor did not commit to stopping the sweeps, and there was no direct solution offered. The KC Homeless Union has a meeting with Mayor Lucas and Councilwoman Parks-Shaw tomorrow to discuss further solutions.
[Update 4/5/2021 8:30 p.m.: The Pitch clarified the number of vehicles seen at Camp 6ixx after new information from Chris Hernandez. The city has also stated that they would not use bulldozers on a homeless encampment, despite the claims and concerns of protestors.]
This story is developing and will be updated, including with comments from parties reached out to for comment.