Douglas County Commission approves new health order, funding for homelessness assessment

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The Douglas County Commission on Wednesday approved a new emergency health order for people experiencing homelessness, aimed at minimizing COVID-19 exposure. 

Effective as of 12:01 a.m. Thursday, the order allows clients from community agencies who are experiencing homelessness to be temporarily housed in hotels. The intent of the order is to leave more space for people who have tested positive for COVID-19 to be sufficiently isolated.  

Under this order, the county would reimburse the agencies through FEMA disaster relief funding. Assistant County Administrator Jill Jolicouer explained that a previous agreement between the Lawrence Community Shelter and the county worked well before, and this new agreement is restricted to the use of hotels and motels — it does not currently include University of Kansas residence halls.  

The order also applies to healthcare workers, emergency first responders and public safety officials who aren’t able to quarantine at home, as well as members of treatment programs. It does not apply to people who are incarcerated.  

Other approved items include … 

• An allocation of $71,525 to assess available programs and needs to address local homelessness.   

Commissioners approved the agreement with the University of Kansas Center for Research Inc., tabling a second agreement with the Corporation for Supportive Housing for another meeting because of a pending change with that item.  

The agreement with the KU Center for Public Partnerships and Research will engage local stakeholders and agencies to analyze current programs and services available for families and individuals who are experiencing or at risk of homelessness. It has timeline dates through May 2022.  

Meghan Cizek and Owen Cox of KU CPPR told commissioners that previous work on a similar needs assessment project for the Greater Kansas City Coalition on Homelessness successfully gathered data through methods such as focus groups and surveys. They hope to use a similar approach in Douglas County, while making sure all parts of the population who were left out of some focus groups before — such as veterans and victims of domestic violence — are considered.  

“We’re really trying to cast a net where we can find all those individuals and make sure they’re all represented in the data collection,” Cox said.  

Commissioner Patrick Kelly and Commission Vice Chair Shannon Reid voted in approval, with Commission Chair Shannon Portillo abstaining due to a personal connection with the organization. Reid stressed the importance of compensating members of the population who have to relive possible trauma from participating in the assessment, but noted that homelessness has become an increasingly urgent issue locally in the last year and a half.  

“It’s evolved and manifested in different ways,” Reid said. “I think this is an important intentional step in figuring out how to mitigate that as best we can.” 

• An agreement for $1.3 million toward a Treatment and Recovery Center.   

Behavioral Health Partners, a nonprofit formed by LMH Health and Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center, plans to use the allocation to fund existing costs for leadership, development and operations. The center is set to open in early 2022, and LMH hopes to present another long-term funding agreement to the county commission in December.   

Patrick Schmitz, CEO of Bert Nash, said the partnered effort aims to be transparent, inclusive, and data-based in making decisions for the facility. Representatives said they’ve discussed possible ways to make sure the voices of consumers are heard, such as forming advisory boards with community members who have lived experience with addiction, but those efforts haven’t been formalized yet. 

“We’re creating some new and innovative things, and that really requires listening to everyone,” Schmitz said. “We know that what we are doing is a huge investment, not only on the part of the county but all the citizens of Douglas County who have come together to help support this.” 

Rich Failla, executive director for the center, said this new center will keep individuals in Douglas County who need help from having to give up being close to their families in order to get it.  

“My primary concern is helping patients that can’t help themselves,” Failla said. “Our job will be to make this a success, but more importantly, our job will be to help people and to keep them in our community, and to help them get rid of the symptoms of their mental illness and their substance dependency.”  

Commissioners commended the collaborative effort that’s gone into the center as it prepares to open its doors.  

“I know that this collaboration takes a lot of work, and it’s wonderful to see progress being made,” Portillo said. “This is well overdue in our community, so I’m excited that we are moving forward in a productive way.” 

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