As Kansans struggle with housing needs, advocates push for stronger safety net

Unable to afford rent, Kirk King, a Topeka native and lifelong resident, has spent the past year living in his van or at a nearby campground. He is calling on state lawmakers to enact legislation to ensure all Kansans housing needs are met. (Noah Taborda/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — At the onset of the pandemic last spring, Kirk King was displaced from his residence.

Unable to afford rent, the lifelong Topeka resident has spent the past year living in his van or at a nearby campground. He said every day is a struggle with depression and an ailing hip for which he needs surgery.

King says more and more homeless people camp by the Kansas River every month. He is calling on state lawmakers to act and invest in better housing for some of Kansas’ most vulnerable.

“All I want is a place to live that I can afford on my disability that is safe and maybe have a cat and then a place to work on my Harley again,” King said. “We need to take care of our own people. I have worked hard all my life, and I feel I should be able to afford a place.”

King is not alone in this struggle. According to a March report to Congress by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, 580,466 Americans experienced homelessness on any given night in 2020, a 2.2% increase from 2019.

Organizers for Rent Zero Kansas, an advocacy group focused on housing needs, gathers Thursday on the south steps of the Statehouse to warn legislators of potential fallout of inadequate housing policy. (Noah Taborda/Kansas Reflector)

A Kansas eviction moratorium has been extended to May 28 and a federal hold runs until June 30, but advocates for Rent Zero Kansas are pushing for all-encompassing legislation to ensure more sufficient housing. Organizers and those suffering without housing gathered Thursday on the steps of the Statehouse to remind legislators that despite the moratoriums, landlords are exposing loopholes, and Kansans are still facing evictions.

Many people are facing utility shutoffs due to the extreme cold or do not qualify for rental assistance programs, said Tanith Kartman, an organizer with Rent Zero Kansas. Kartman said legislators must no longer stand by and watch this occur.

“Kansas legislative session is coming to an end, and all we have seen from this round are tax cuts for the wealthy and attacks on trans youth,” Kartman said. “The tenants of Kansas need more than a Band-Aid. Housing is health care, housing is safety, and housing is a human right.”

Dustin Hare, a Wyandotte County organizer with Rent Zero Kansas, recalled several times this winter when he had to tell people there were no housing options available and that they would likely spend the night out in the cold. The safety net for housing has failed in this way each day, he said.

Expanded public housing is among solutions proposed by Hare and Rent Zero, but in Kansas City, Kansas, matters are trending in the wrong direction. Juniper Gardens, the largest and oldest public housing project in the state, is at risk of closing.

“A tight-knit community of nearly 200 residents will be displaced this year. When that happens, they are not going to have anywhere to go,” Hare said. “We don’t have shelters. We don’t have transitional housing. We don’t have rental units that are even remotely affordable. We don’t have a social safety net.”

Louise Lynch says eviction moratoriums are a Band-Aid for the variety of issues facing Kansans. Housing is a first step to addressing these struggles, she said. (Noah Taborda/Kansas Reflector)

If not addressed promptly, structural issues like utility costs and homelessness exacerbated by COVID-19 could get even worse, he said.

Louise Lynch is among those struggling with sky-high utility bills in Kansas City, Kansas. Her daughter is still suffering from the side effects of COVID-19, she uses an electric mobility scooter, and her husband uses a CPAP machine to breathe at night. Loss of electricity would be a crisis for her household.

To compensate, Lynch and her family spend a great deal of time in the same room, with clothes and blankets lining the walls to keep heat in the building.

“The moratorium on rent eviction is just a start. It does not cover everything that we need to,” Lynch said. “The same people that struggled in the cold are going to struggle in the summer. They will not be able to run the air conditioner. Does that mean we deserve to die? No.”