Helping the Homeless
From successful art dealer to philanthropist, Kar Woo has seen both sides of the human condition.
After speaking before a women’s group luncheon recently, Kar Woo checked his cellphone. During the course of his 40-minute speech, he received 48 calls. Four of those were from area hospitals.
But that’s just typical for the diminutive and soft-spoken Woo, a Hong Kong native who works 15 hours a day, seven days a week helping the homeless find a path toward a better life.
“I think my whole life experience has brought me to this,” he says. “I was born with natural empathy, and I’m always patient.”
Woo came to the United States with $50 in his pocket at age 19 to go to college. His family discouraged him from studying art, one of his passions, so he studied business and counseling instead. He doesn’t like to reveal how old he is.
“I do that on purpose because I don’t want people to define what we do by our age,” he explains. “We do what we do not because we are older or younger.”
He eventually settled in this area, earning college degrees in counseling and psychology while also operating art galleries — the yin and yang of his personality. He lives in Overland Park.
For 10 years, Woo owned an art gallery in Town Center Plaza called JM Porters before moving it around 2006 (he admits he’s terrible with dates) to the Country Club Plaza. There, he would bring his dog to work and walk it in nearby Mill Creek Park. He started noticing the number of homeless living there.
“I was so surprised,” he says.
He would invite them to his gallery, where he would provide food, clothing and blankets. Word of mouth quickly spread that Woo was a friend to the homeless.
Something about their plight struck a chord with him. He remembered the short time when he found himself homeless while in college after his apartment building burned down. That understanding of what homelessness means never left him.
Saint Luke’s Hospital on the Plaza called a meeting to address the homelessness issue with not only area service providers but the homeless. Something astonishing happened when the homeless were asked who they wanted to work with, Woo recalls.
“My name kept coming up,” he says, adding that eventually “KCUMB (Kansas City University of Medicine and Biosciences) did a study on me because they found it very strange that a gallery owner would actually invite homeless people into the gallery. Usually they kick them out.”
After three years on the Plaza, Woo made a life-altering decision. He opted out of the retail life to start a new chapter, the nonprofit Artists Helping the Homeless. One of his first supporters was the Kansas City Art Institute, he says, and thus the name.
Through the years, with the help of a board of directors and a small staff, all of whom are former clients who turned their lives around, he built the program into an indispensable resource for the homeless and the organizations and agencies that deal with the homeless every day, such as hospitals, police and shelters. Woo says his efforts have saved hospitals, police departments, ambulance services and jails about $10 million.
By all accounts, his dedication is sincere. The editorial board of The Kansas City Star even named him one of its “Citizens of 2015” finalists.
“It started very innocently, very, very small,” Woo says of his nonprofit. “I did not plan to create a program. The goal was to help the individuals that I came across, give them a guiding hand. I was very naïve, and my heart went out to them.”
When Saint Luke’s Hospital asked him to give rides to homeless men and women who hung out in emergency rooms, he was happy to oblige. He also began picking them up at police stations at all hours of the day and night to transport them to safe places like detox centers or shelters. Often, if a destination looks shaky, he would be back on his phone, trying to locate a better place. He considers his clients his friends.
Last year, Bodhi House sheltered about 140 men, whose stays so far range from two days to four months. Woo helps them find out what their short- and long-term needs are and always encourages them to go to school to meet their goals.
In addition, Woo coordinates weekly meals for homeless people and the working poor near the Plaza and in Olathe. One of his latest projects is establishing Finnegan Place, an apartment complex in midtown destined to house about 40 at-risk men over an extended period of time. He’s pitching the idea to hospitals, foundations and other groups in the hope of raising the $650,000 he estimates he’ll need to get it up and running.
“The goal is for them to really learn the skill of living on their own,” he says.
Always one to have goals, he wants in the future to provide shelters for seniors and women and their children, too.
Woo often says he’s the safety net for the safety net, catching those who fall through the safety-net system.
“I’m trying to create programs to fill the gaps that aren’t being filled,” he says. “My wish is to create enough safety-net programs so that there are no gaps.”
Although he doesn’t keep track of it, Woo says that through the years he has put at least $100,000 of his own money into his efforts to help the homeless. He’s worked hard all his life, both in the retail and nonprofit worlds, but at his essence, he’s OK with the simple things in life.
“Let me put it this way,” he says. “In my gallery, I worked with the top 10 percent of the [wealthiest] population. This, I work with the bottom 10 percent of the population. So I see both sides.”
Artists Helping the Homeless reportedly operates on an annual budget of $350,000 from such sources as churches, hospitals and grants. Earmarked for essentials like fuel and upkeep on his two vehicles, the money also helps Woo support Bodhi House or pay for a client’s medication.
“I haven’t seen anybody doing the work as efficiently as he does,” says Michael Harrington, a volunteer assistant of Woo’s who plans to study social work to help people get out of poverty. “I think what he is doing is revolutionary. It’s almost like all the challenges his clients have become his challenges as well. He becomes like a teammate, getting them to treatment centers, getting them to detox. He actually drives them there. He’s fully engaged.”
One of the homeless men he recently met is Joseph Roberts, 35, a former drug addict who says Woo helped him when he didn’t have anywhere to go. Social workers called Woo, who got Roberts into temporary shelter.
“I just appreciate his help,” Roberts says, adding that the experience has changed his career goals. One year away from getting his bachelor’s degree, Roberts says he was thinking about going into physical therapy but now may switch to social work.
“Seeing people suffer saddens me,” he says. “Seeing them do well is so gratifying.”
Collaboration is key to a successful nonprofit, he says, and a willingness to ask questions of what is needed in the community.
“We have helped more than 10,000 people since we started,” he says. “We are the only organization to work with every battered shelter, every family shelter, every homeless shelter, detox, every single hospital, ambulance and police.”
He suggests, however, that everyone can help even in small ways. For example, if one person helps 10 people, who in turn help 10 people, that can have a cascading effect.
“You don’t have to do big things,” he says. “You have to start small. Just do something. I always say that we do things because our total life experience brought us to a point. I really, truly believe that when we receive our calling, we have to be ready and willing. And I was just lucky to be ready and willing.”