Times are tough all over.
Today, several families are visiting the office of Catholic Charities at 333 East Poplar in Olathe, just across the street from Mill Creek Park, a few blocks from the Johnson County Courthouse. Inside the one-story, peach-colored building, parents are picking through bags of donated groceries in the food pantry and poking through cubbies full of free clothing. An elderly man, also here to pick up food, slips two one-dollar bills to a volunteer on his way out the door and tells him to give the cash to two tiny Hispanic girls in sundresses after he's gone.
"In the big city, you know the homeless people because they're the scraggly guys holding 'will work for food' signs on the side of the road," says Lauren Flynn, director of a Salvation Army emergency shelter. "In Johnson County, they're probably standing behind you in line at Price Chopper."
Flynn says the waiting list of families seeking emergency shelter at the Salvation Army now tops 60. At the beginning of each month, a line of needy people snakes out the door and around the corner. But the agency's emergency assistance money is gone by the second day of the month. The shelter can house 10 families at a time; it moves people with children to a renovated motel just around the corner from the Catholic Charities office.
In January 2007, workers from charity organizations went out to count the homeless population in the metro. They identified 293 people living on the streets or in cars or drifting from friend's house to friend's house — an increase of 38 from the same exercise in 2005. Half of the homeless people counted were children younger than 18. Flynn's organization serves families first, and then single women if there's room. Twelve Johnson County churches also lend sleeping space to homeless families.
But there are no options in Johnson County for single men. Mina Foster, a case manager at Catholic Charities, says she tells them to seek out the well-lighted parking lots of 24-hour stores and sleep in their cars at night.
"This is my little world back here," Reynaldo Castillo says cheerfully, opening the passenger door of his 1978 Ford Econoline van. It's white, detailed with a broad red stripe down the sides and lined inside with cracking, quilted vinyl. He wears jeans, a clean T-shirt, work boots and a "U.S.A." hat embroidered with an eagle.
Castillo leaves the van in the parking lot of the Wal-Mart Supercenter at Santa Fe and Black Bob Road in Olathe, where he works unloading boxed merchandise off 18-wheelers from four in the afternoon until one in the morning. When he's not at work, he drives a short distance east on Santa Fe and parks the van under a line of trees planted in a concrete island that separates a Blockbuster store from a Payless Shoes.
"Nobody bothers me over here," he says. "It's real quiet. You can just hear the birds. To me, it's just like a park. It's beautiful, you know. To me, it's not that bad. They tell me in Kansas City, downtown is real bad. Over here is just like a little country, you know. I like it."
Castillo's van is tall enough for him to stand up inside. He sleeps on a yellow upholstered loveseat behind the driver's seat. Opposite the loveseat is a small counter covered with papers, photographs and a paperback New Testament. In the back, behind a flimsy wooden door and underneath a pile of winter blankets, is a toilet that Castillo doesn't use. The air conditioning doesn't work, so Castillo keeps the front windows down, the back windows cracked and a ceiling vent open. There's a breeze in the summertime, but in the winter, no matter how tightly he shuts himself in, blowing snow still finds its way inside.