Douglas County Commission approves homelessness resources, discusses options for federal funds

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The Douglas County Commission approved $125,ooo toward emergency local homelessness prevention at Wednesday’s meeting.  

This allocation comes from American Rescue Plan funding and will go toward rent and utility assistance. The request came from the Douglas County Housing Stabilization Collaborative, a community program originally formed by Family Promise of Lawrence. The DCHSC plans to allocate $100,000 toward rent and $25,000 toward utility assistance.  

Following this summer’s expiration of the eviction moratorium, Gabi Sprague of the DSHSC said the community is seeing the effects. Data has been hard to collect, Sprague said, but at least 70 households between housing service providers in the county have been evicted since the expiration and some existing resources such as the Kansas Emergency Rent Assistance program often don’t release funds fast enough to stop them. 

In addition to rent and utility assistance on the tenant side, Mariel Ferreiro of the Lawrence-Douglas County Housing Authority said the program will start implementing ways to engage landlords, such as holding monthly meetings with community providers and stakeholders who frequently interact with them. Everyone has to be invited to the housing stabilization, she said, and these meetings would help to collaborate with landlords in a more productive way.  

“That’s an issue that we’re running into often, that landlords are feeling that they’re not in this conversation,” Ferreiro said. “We’re continuing to make them feel and know that they are very essential in how we structure sustainable housing for the future.”  

Housing insecurity was at the forefront of the minds of some residents as well during the general public comment portion of the meeting. Wonder Fair owner Paul DeGeorge and Rose Schmidt of local advocacy group Justice Matters presented commissioners with a signed statement of support from 20 local businesses and urged them to consider putting incoming federal funding toward addressing homelessness.  

“We believe that homelessness is a problem that is solvable and that addressing chronic homelessness with compassionate and holistic solutions is good for our local businesses,” DeGeorge said. “We need a comprehensive plan to end homelessness in our community instead of just continuing to manage it.”  

In other business…  

•  Commissioners approved an allocation of $26,000 toward a homelessness needs assessment.  

Similar to an assessment approved earlier this month, this assessment by the Corporation of Supportive Housing would seek out insight and data from the community to determine needs in the community, although this assessment would focus more on supportive housing specifically.  

Bob Tryanski, director of behavioral health projects, pointed out that housing insecurity and mental health challenges often intertwine.  

“There are a lot of interventions that we can look at and explore in preventing suicide,” Tryanski said. “What we’d like to be able to do is really understand what our community needs in order to be able to maintain tenure and stability in the community, regardless of the life circumstances that are challenging them.”  

Commissioners noted the two assessments of this nature that they’ve approved complement each other well and they will both be factors in helping leadership make data-informed decisions around housing insecurity. 

“There is such a need in the community for this,” Commissioner Patrick Kelly said. “If we’re going to meet our aspirations when it comes to homelessness, this is really a place we have to target.”  

 Commissioners and county staff also discussed plans for allocation and distribution of federal funding meant to offset the financial burden of the COVID-19 pandemic.  

Douglas County has $11.9 million in ARPA funding currently available locally and will be eligible for another $11.9 million in July of 2022. The county initially received $25 million in ARPA funding in July of 2020, which roughly amounts to $194 dollars per person.  

Although no action was taken at the meeting, commissioners discussed priorities for possible action items that could be on a future meeting agenda as soon as a couple of weeks from now. Some eligible uses of ARPA funding include mitigation efforts toward public health emergencies, offsetting reduced revenue, and compensating frontline essential workers.  

Housing and essential worker compensation were both prevalent in the discussion, and commissioners agreed they were both important issues but would be difficult to sustainably fix with the one-time payments ARPA funding would provide. They noted that the county’s most vulnerable communities and the ongoing emergency of COVID-19 should be at the center of any funding decisions — especially with the possible approach of COVID-19 vaccine booster rollout.  

“We are still in the midst of a public health crisis,” Commission Chair Shannon Portillo said. “Public health has to be the thing that rises to the top.”  

Overall, commissioners determined the distribution of ARPA funding would have a “multi-phased approach,” with some of it going toward immediate emergency needs and some of it going toward long-term community improvement projects. County Administrator Sarah Plinsky noted that having longer than six months, the duration of the previously approved period for CARES Act funding, would give staff time to both be deliberate in long-term planning and respond to emergency needs quickly.  

“I think we can balance both of those things,” Plinsky said. “These are federal funds. They come with strings and they come with a large amount of accounting. Frankly, the responsibility is on us as Douglas County to make sure those funds are spent appropriately.” 

Note: This article has been corrected to fix a misspelled name.

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