A Walk on the Westside
by Patrick Dobson
Mulberry, buckthorn, and Siberian elm crawl up the bluff above the West Bottoms rail yards. Grapevines and Virginia creeper loll in jungle profusion from the power lines and telephone poles. It looks as if society left this landscape behind. But people have reclaimed this post-industrial scenery. They call it home.
For the half mile from 17th Street and West Pennway Boulevard to the 12th Street viaduct, Beardsley Road is one long bridge. From my house on Kansas City’s Westside, I hike around the corner and down onto the dusty ground next to Beardsley Road and up along an old roadbed above the bridge. Among the bridge pillars and below the girders that support Beardsley’s roadbed homeless people have staked their claim. Up on the bluff, too, people have hidden camps in the brush and trees.
The homeless here are used to cops hounding them, driving them out of other corners of the city. They are a suspicious bunch and regard me with distrust. As long as I keep my conversation about them — and don’t ask too many personal questions — they are happy to talk to me, have me take a seat on bucket or in decrepit armchair, and show me their accommodations.
It’s easy to take a seat among the vines and believe I’m in someone’s living room. It may not look like home to many people who have known good fortune but it is. This life under the bridge is only a financial mistake away for most of us — an illness, loss of a job. It’s all right here. I’m not foolish enough to think it can’t happen to me.
Once under the bridge or into the bushes, they resign themselves to life off the grid. Among them are veterans who have found life outside the military difficult. Some are mothers and fathers who schlep their children from place to place in the hopes of finding a way to build new lives. Many once had homes and middle-class jobs.
Homelessness in Kansas City reflects a national problem. The National Health Care for the Homeless Council (NHCHC), a group of 10,000 doctors, nurses, social workers, patients, and homeless advocates nationwide dedicated to eradicating homelessness, estimated 805,000 homeless in the United States in 2011. The organization reported Kansas City’s unsheltered homeless population was about 3,307. The Public Policy Research Center (PPRC) at the University of Missouri-St. Louis put the number at 2,749 in 2012.
Two reputable organizations reported two different numbers, but counting the homeless is a slippery proposition. People move. Some are counted twice, many not at all. What’s interesting, however, is that both the NHCHC and the PPRC organizations agree that the unsheltered homeless population in Kansas City increased 67 percent between 2007 and 2013.
It makes me think that everywhere I go in or near downtown Kansas City I am in someone’s front room.
My numerous discussions with the homeless reveal that they are sometimes addicts and drunks, and sometimes mentally ill. They fit the stereotypes we have about the homeless. But the drugged, drunk, and mentally ill comprise only one-third of the city’s homeless, the PPRC reports. Most homeless people I talk with do not chatter to themselves, sway around in drunken stupors, or get twitchy in the grips of meth. Most homeless under Beardsley road and among the bushes in the bluff above look and act like you and me.
Few of us admit that capitalism kicks people who do not suffer from drugs or mental illness to the curb.
Four years ago, I saw a well-dressed man with trim hair holding a sign in front of his face that read, “I WILL WORK!” It was at the corner of Southwest Boulevard and 21st Street. He was so embarrassed and nervous that he bit the top of the sign as he held it in his shaking hands. He was crying. Now, I talk to him sometimes on my hikes down by the bridge. A few months before he hit the street corner with his sign he was a manager at a real estate firm downtown. Although the government claimed the Great Recession had come to an end, he wound up begging for alms. Homelessness has transformed him from a soft-skinned white guy with a suit to a tanned, hard man with a faux-down jacket, parachute pants, and boots the Salvation Army gave him.
People along Beardsley Road don’t like shelters much and like having social workers manage them even less. A social worker represents a person’s dependence on a society he or she has failed at. Who wants to admit their dependence on anyone? Still, the homeless are dependent on the goodness of others, whether those without homes want to own up to it or not.
In their (in)dependence, the unsheltered homeless along Beardsley are a practical bunch. They divide their space beneath the bridge into sections between the bridge pillars. In one section, some men have made themselves beds with discarded tires as box springs. When I visit the bridge, I’m always amazed that as tattered and frayed as the blankets and sheets are, the beds are always made when there’s no one home.
In another section, a family built an entire house with the bridge as a roof. They’ve outfitted a permanent structure they call The Living Room with a screen and inside door, a couch, and a sofa painting of a translucent ocean wave. There’s a fireplace. They insulted The Living Room with mover’s blankets. Rug and discarded carpet covers the floor. The door to The Living Room opens to what amounts to an open-air home. A kitchen area surrounds a fire ring. Kitchen utensils and pots and pans hang next to neat stands of bowls and plates on old bread racks. The ground is swept clean and armchairs on rugs surround the fire ring. The people who live there landscaped their edge of the hill that overlooks the rail yards. They built flowerbeds and pruned the mulberry and scrubby oaks into attractive arrangements. Up on the bluff, homeless men and women reinforced their tents with recovered lumber, galvanized roofing, and mover’s blankets.
The semi-permanent dwellings above and underneath the bridge share a common aspect: The people who live in these lodgings sweep the ground clean. Sometimes thrown-away rugs, sections of carpet, and linoleum tiles cover the smooth dirt giving the feeling of neatness, cleanliness, and ownership to people who own only the clothes on their backs and the things they have gathered from the refuse of polite society. The more permanent residents gather their trash into trash bags and bring them out to the Parks and Recreation trashcans in Jarboe Park and along West Pennway.
A couple of sections under the bridge provide temporary housing for transients. Up near the stable camps on the bluff the vagrant homeless leave squatters’ refuse — discarded clothes, worn out shoes, cans and plastic bottles, paper and plastic sheeting. Unlike the permanently encamped, the transients are less mindful of their surroundings. The tatters of their housing and lives rise in trash heaps. The residents of the semi-permanent encampments call transients, “bad neighbors.”
Homeless men and women gather near the corner of 17th Street and West Pennway every evening around 6 p.m., when a Salvation Army or Red Cross Homeless Services truck delivers food. In winter, the trucks also deliver warm clothes, first-aid kits, and blankets. Every now and then an ambulance carries a sick person off to an emergency room. For the most part, however, there is order.
Regular citizens also deliver goods to the homeless in their own cars and out of the goodness of their hearts. Every week in the winter, a neighbor of mine places a bag of coats and jackets where the homeless gather to meet the trucks. I have been in the camps below the bridge when a person pulls up and honks, signaling to the bridge’s residents that food or clothing has arrived. One woman — I don’t recognize her as a neighbor — brings personal hygiene items, such as soap, shampoo, and toilet paper to the bluff every two weeks. Other people deliver all kinds of items that we home-full take for granted — pillows, bedding, and shoes.
After my walks, I get to go to a comfortable home — that is, a house with stuff. When I wake up in the morning, I look out my front window and think of those people along Beardsley Road. In some ways, I’m glad they have found home in a neighborhood that cares for them.
But my musings always come around to the same point. An accident, a run of bad luck, a bankruptcy. That’s all that separates me from them.
Dr. Patrick Dobson is the author of Seldom Seen: A Journey into the Great Plains. His second book, Canoeing the Great Plains: A Summer on the Missouri River, will be published by the University of Nebraska Press on May 1, 2015. His history monograph, More Than a River: Using Nature for Reform in the Progressive Era is now out for peer-review with the University of Nebraska Press.