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The Cold Snap Has Advocates Raising Questions About Belton, Missouri's Plan For The Houseless

Carlos Moreno/KCUR 89.3

Soon after one of our subzero winter nights, there was a post on a Belton, Missouri Community Facebook Group with an image of a man huddled under a blanket in the corner of a storefront on Belton’s Main Street.

Trisha Moore posted the image originally on her personal page. She’s a volunteer with the grass-roots group Free Hot Soup, which delivers food and other supplies to those living without houses in and around Belton. Next to her name she attached a sad emoji with the words “feeling heartbroken.”

Moore says she knows the man in the image well as one of those she and her colleagues visit regularly and keep tabs on. He lives in one of the camps those without houses occupy around Belton.

“He likes to read sci-fi books….loves cats and will take in strays….is polite and well-mannered. He loves his momma,” she writes in her post.

She told me that he once asked her not to tell his mother how he was living.

Free Hot Soup has increased its delivery of food and other supplies to those living outdoors during this cold-snap, partnering with Belton-based Heart N Hand , a non-profit service agency that collaborates with more than a dozen local churches. Together they’ve been able to find temporary shelter for a number of individuals in recent days.

But Moore is one of the advocates in Belton disappointed with the way the city has responded to the increasing number of homeless people.

“The city of Belton has not supported us at all,” she told me. “They did recently open the lobby of the police station but that’s all they’ve done.”

I later visited with Shay Jefferson - meeting up with her just off Highway 71 on 155th Street. If we turned on to North Scott Avenue, we’d head into Belton. A turn in the opposite direction revealed some woods with snow covered trees bathed in midday sunlight.

At the edge of these woods, at the base of a light pole is a collection of stuff - a baby stroller, a broken cardboard box with what appears to be a heavy jacket spilling over the sides.

Like Moore, Jefferson has come to know some of the people who live in these woods. They've become friends and she checks on them regularly — daily in cold weather.

“We were out here last night and did not see anybody," she said. "Oh my God, that is huge." It means her friends had all found a place to shelter.

Jefferson is a social worker who’d been working with those who are homeless in Chicago. She arrived in Belton 10 years ago and began doing similar work here. Her organization began as the Cass County Family Resource Center and has expanded to several neighboring counties. Now, it’s the Family Resource Centers of Missouri.

Shaw says advocates tried a few years ago to create a shelter in the front part of the The Welcome Inn, an extended stay motel with a towering sign just across from where we’re standing.

The idea was to create not only a shelter, but a place that offered broader services to transient people who travelled what Jefferson called “the main vein,” a route that follows the rail line from South Kansas City through Grandview and into Belton.

“But the city of Belton did not see this as a good idea,” she said.

Jefferson said she understands officials may not be enthusiastic about locating a shelter at the entry of the city. Belton’s growing. New development is happening.

“I’m not a city planner,” she said, throwing up her hands.” I’m in social work.”

But she says the nearest shelter is more than 15 miles from Belton, so they need to think of something. What they're offering now, she says, is a band-aid for a gaping wound.

Response to frigid cold

At the behest of at least one city council member, the administration recently opened the lobbies of the Belton Police Department and Municipal Court as a 24-hour warming center. The doors are locked, but there's a buzzer and staff member present to let people in at all times.

When we arrived there Tuesday afternoon, we saw several boxes of warm clothes and blankets with a sign reading “Take One.” There was a case of bottled water, half gone. It was a sparse place, but warm.

We met a woman who looked to be about middle -aged, dressed in black pants and several layers of fleecy-type sweaters. Her shoulder length sandy blond hair was neatly combed. She was cleaning her comb when we arrived.

She didn't want to share her name but told us she’d been sleeping on a cot and walking up the street for fast food since Friday. Some meals had been delivered, as well, and she was grateful to the city for this resource.

“And there’s been other people that have come in and needed water and just needed a warm place to be,” she said. “And they took ‘em in, no questions asked.”

Mayor responds

Belton Mayor Jeff Davis is proud his city has made these resources available.

He takes offense at the idea he, or the city, doesn’t care about residents who are struggling, noticing the negative comments on Facebook.

“I saw where somebody I didn’t know said, 'The mayor doesn’t care about homeless people,'” Mayor Davis said with a chuckle.

”I talk to homeless people all the time. Most of (them) are very cordial, good people, just disconnected for one reason or another. You ask them what can we do to help them and they really don’t want any help, most of them.”

The mayor attributes the hostile remarks on social media to the election coming up in April. He is seeking another four-year term. He has three challengers.

Advocates like Jefferson have long sparred with the mayor for allying himself with those in Belton who oppose a permanent shelter.

But this week, he told KCUR he would support the idea.

“Honestly, I’d just as soon put it on a ballot. It doesn’t bother me a bit,” he said. "Do I want it (in Belton?) I want what the public want. I represent people.”

Shay Jefferson isn’t hopeful a shelter will come anytime soon.

“Not even a little," she said, "It’s Belton, and like most small communities they don’t accept change very well.”

Carlos Moreno/KCUR 89.3 /
Carlos Moreno/KCUR 89.3 /
A woman, who asked not to be identified, sits in the police station in Belton where the city has set up a warming center for anyone needing to get out of the cold. The woman said she has a home in Belton but does not have any heating.
Carlos Moreno/KCUR 89.3 /
A woman, who asked not to be identified, sits in the police station in Belton where the city has set up a warming center for anyone needing to get out of the cold. The woman said she has a home in Belton but does not have any heating.

Copyright 2021 KCUR 89.3

Laura Ziegler began her career at KCUR as a reporter more than 20 years ago. She became the news director in the mid 1980's and in 1988, went to National Public Radio in Washington, D.C. as a producer for Weekend Edition Saturday with Scott Simon.