By John Baccala, Neighborhoods and Housing Services
For many Kansas City homeowners, basic maintenance presents a real burden, especially for the elderly and disabled. Sometimes, many feel helpless and hopeless. Enter Shawn Kirkwood, the city’s housing diversion coordinator -- a recently-created position in the Neighborhoods and Housing Services Department. For those he has helped, Kirkwood is Superman without the cape and Batman without the Batmobile.
“I get the pleasure of serving as a double liaison,” Kirkwood said. “I serve as the bridge between the municipal court and housing code defendants and those same housing code offenders and the various network of not-for-profits that assist homeowners with home repairs, utility payments and other issues.
“I love helping and advocating for people who need a little help!”
Kirkwood helps housing code offenders get the help they need, and Municipal Judge Todd Wilcher, who works with him almost daily in housing court, sees someone devoted to making a difference.
“Shawn conducts his business with energy and compassion,” Judge Wilcher said.
“Just outcomes in housing court prosecutions require careful consideration of a homeowner’s ability to comply with housing code standards. When homeowners, due to age, disability and lack of income, do not have the means to address the deteriorated conditions of their homes, the city has an answer.”
When the position was created in late 2016, Kirkwood jumped at the opportunity to make it his own. He created his own blueprint for success -- help every citizen navigate through housing court and get the help they need. He knows first-hand how housing code violations often frustrate and confuse homeowners.
“The biggest part of my work is to listen, hear and be empathetic to a person’s concern,” he said. “Then, and only then, can I begin to properly assess their situation and offer solutions.”
Kirkwood said he is especially sympathetic to the struggles of elderly homeowners.
“I have always had a soft spot for our elderly folks as they often times face some difficult choices regarding property maintenance issues,” he said. “They have very tough, but real choices they have to make. ‘ Do I paint my house or do I pay for my medication?’ ‘Do I pay my property taxes or do I pay for groceries?’”
Kirkwood wants to be a one-stop shop for those he serves by providing information about city resources and community agencies that can assist in home repair, free or discounted labor and utility assistance. “I love advocating for people who need a little help,” Kirkwood said. “When you are able to help them get connected to resources they otherwise wouldn’t have known about, the payoff is well worth it.”
“Shawn does a great job using the Municipal Court Fund and minor home repair and paint programs to help housing court violators get the assistance they need,” Judge Wilcher said. “He guides homeowners through the process. He works directly with homeowners, contractors, the city prosecutor and the court to provide thorough and timely updates on the progress and completion of repair and replacement projects.”
Kirkwood has worked for the city for nearly nine years, beginning as a code inspector. But he said this, by far, is his most rewarding position. He receives ‘tons’ of phone calls and emails daily, but returns every one because each homeowner deserves his compassion.
“Behind every inquiry lives a hardship story,” he explained, “and I just might be able to help.” Kirkwood was instrumental in the initial ‘Love Thy Neighbor’ initiative -- a partnership between the city and the faith-based community to provide voluntary assistance to homeowners facing code violations and physically or financially unable to make needed repairs. And he is always on the lookout to find other creative ways to help.
“This job is exhaustingly gratifying,” Kirkwood said.