The metro area is moving closer to a permanent, regional approach to homelessness.

The metro area is moving closer to a permanent, regional approach to homelessness.

The problem “doesn’t know any city boundaries,” said Independence City Council Member Jim Schultz, chair of the board of the Mid-America Regional Council. Schultz has said he’s making homelessness a MARC priority, and on Tuesday its board voted to join in the efforts of a task force studying the issue and devising solutions.

“It is a problem that is exacerbated and gets worse as the economy falters,” said Charles W. German, who is on the task force.

A draft of the report the task force expects to make final by the end of June lays out much of the problem: On any given day in 2009, at least 12,925 people in the five-county metro area were homeless, including 6,847 in Jackson County – 2,009 of whom were school children. Specifically, that meant 564 children in the Independence School District, 20 in Blue Springs and eight in Grain Valley. Those numbers include not only those living on the streets and in shelters but also those doubling up with friends or relatives.

Advocates stressed that those numbers are probably on the low side, and they also are emphatic on this point: Despite the stereotype, most of the homeless are not the persons sleeping under a bridge.

“Most of the people in the community who are homeless you never see because they are kids,” German said.

“Two trends are largely responsible for the rise in homelessness over the past 30 years: a growing shortage of affordable rental housing and a simultaneous decrease in income,” the task force report says. “Two factors help account for decreasing income: eroding employment opportunities for large segments of the workforce and the declining value and availability of public assistance.”

One example: In 2009, a worker needed to make $14.97 an hour – roughly double the minimum wage – to afford a one-bedroom apartment. To put it another way, a person would need to work 51 hours a week at $14.44 an hour to rent an average two-bedroom home and not pay more than 30 percent of her overall income on housing.

“It’s a problem that hits every single county, every school system. It hits all of us,” said Nancy Leazer, chief of staff of the Homelessness Task Force.

She underlined that rents are rising far more quickly than incomes, and she illustrated the metro problem in some detail. The No. 1 thing most people say they need to get back on their feet is a car. Still, there is a notion that Kansas City has more services for the homeless so people tend to concentrate there, but most of the available minimum-wage jobs are in Johnson County, and the area’s transportation system doesn’t always serve them well.

It’s important to understand, Leazer said, that “we really do have a metropolitan area crisis.”

MARC plans to work with cities and counties to find and implement metrowide answers.

“There are still 12,000 homeless people out there today, as we speak,” German said, “and we should do something about that.”