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Kar Woo

Kar Woo, Ripple of Kindness 2024 Finalist

Kar Woo

2024 Ripple of Kindness Finalist

On his 19th birthday, Kar Woo boarded a plane with $50 and an acceptance letter from Waldorf College in northern Iowa.  He quickly discovered that unlike his native Hong Kong, the US wasn’t all buildings and, unlike in the movies, snow was cold and wet. With an AA from Waldorf, Woo went on to Iowa University and the University of Kansas where he studied business and psychology, with post-graduate work in counseling.  

His studies were cut short when his family immigrated to the US and, following Chinese culture, he opened J. M. Porters, a gallery and home furnishings store, to support them.

Woo encountered homeless people for the first time when he moved his store near the Plaza.  In 2008, he started Artists Helping the Homeless to fund Sunday night meals in a nearby park.  Soon the upscale shop included a homeless drop-in center with coats and snacks.  As he talked with the people he met at the meals, he discovered simple acts, like a ride or phone call could make a big difference. 

A year later, Saint Luke’s Plaza Hospital called a meeting of emergency and homeless service providers to address the soaring need and cost of care for area homeless.  At the suggestion of their homeless patients, Saint Luke’s invited Woo whose Sunday meal was in the park between his gallery and the hospital.  Woo left the meeting convinced a transportation-based hospital diversion program could save $1,000,000 or more annually.  After some soul searching, Woo decided to put his store “on hiatus” and start the BE THE CHANGE program to fill this critical gap in Kansas City’s safety net.  In 2012, Saint Luke’s told the AHA News the program had saved $1,750,000 in homeless ED cases.

During the trips, riders shared their stories and challenges.  Other gaps were identified and, working with other agencies, addressed.  Soon AHH was assisting area homeless as they progressed from agency to agency.  This innovative longitudinal approach fostered communication, coordination, and engagement.  Efficiency and outcomes improved for both the homeless and the safety net agencies.   

Another innovation was Bodhi House, a respite residence that filled a gap and prevented a return to the street for those waitlisted for services or placement.  Bodhi House proved particularly effective with young adult males whose behavior alienated them from families and the very agencies that could help them.   Providing food and shelter allowed residents to continue to progress by addressing co-existing issues while waitlisted.  Soon, Finnegan Place transitional apartments were added for Bodhi graduates.  As COVID spread, another gap, housing for homeless patients without the virus being discharged from hospitals, was identified.  AHH’s Shelter In Place program filled that gap, freeing up hospital beds while allowing 195 people to recuperate, transition, and avoid the disease.

Today, AHH assists 1,500-2,000 people annually.  Gap Services meet immediate, short-term needs like transportation.   Discharge Planning assists unhoused people at area hospitals, detox facilities, and jails in identifying and accessing placements or services.  It transports patients and ensures they are admitted.  AHH can also follow up with patients, which improves outcomes and reduces recidivism.  A residential program provides intensive intervention and assistance in addressing the labyrinth of issues that led to or resulted from being homeless. 

Woo’s two-year project is now entering its 15th year.  The 2 van “fleet” has grown to 8.  .  AHH now operates respite houses in Kansas City, Mo., Overland Park and Lawrence, with transitional houses in Kansas City and Lawrence and temporary housing in Wyandotte County.  The respite house concept has been replicated successfully in Douglas County where it was adapted to target a re-entry population and by agencies on both sides of the state line.  The Sunday meals continue, rain or shine, and Woo’s store – still on hiatus.