Researchers say collaboration, data sharing are necessary among service providers
With the clock ticking on Douglas County’s goal of eliminating functional homelessness in 2023, a new report by University of Kansas researchers reveals disparities among marginalized groups.
Black people in Douglas County are experiencing homelessness at a rate nearly five times higher than the general population. For Indigenous people, the rate is three to four times higher, according to the 2021 Douglas County Homelessness Interim Needs Assessment.
The preliminary report shows nearly 51% of those experiencing homelessness identify as female. That statistic outnumbers recent trends, which reflect female representation in those experiencing homelessness at a rate of 39% nationally and 37% in Kansas.
In partnership with the city of Lawrence and Douglas County, funding for the nearly $72,000 study comes from an American Rescue Plan allocation. It analyzes programs and services in Douglas County for people experiencing or at risk of homelessness. The University of Kansas Center for Public Partnerships and Research is conducting the two-part study with an aim of centering the voices of those with lived experiences of homelessness in a final, more comprehensive needs assessment in May 2022.
Using data from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the census and other sources, the report says “minority groups make up a disproportionately high percentage of individuals experiencing homelessness.”
Black people represent only 4% of the county’s population but 17% of the county’s homeless, for example. And individuals identifying as multiracial in the county’s 2020 Homeless Point in Time (PIT) Count number 18% but only 6% on the census. A similar disparity is shown in the Hispanic/Latinx community, which made up 14% of the PIT count of individuals in 2020 but 7% of the county’s population on the census. The PIT count was not taken in 2021 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the 2022 count took place on Wednesday.
Those with a disability represented 64% of individuals experiencing homelessness, and those with mental health issues represented 60%.
Between October 2020 through September 2021, 668 people experienced homelessness or participated in a prevention program in Douglas County with data tracked through the Homelessness Management Information System — a requirement for HUD funding.
Among service providers keeping statistics outside that information system, 3,672 people were served by Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center, DCCCA, Family Promise and the Willow Domestic Violence Center. Despite the possibility of duplicated data collection, pooled data from community providers yielded similar results, researchers said.
The analysis revealed disparities for several groups across multiple data systems; however, KU-CPPR researchers concluded that better methods of collaborative and shared data collection among service providers and agencies were needed in Douglas County.
“Having all of those serving the population at the table to share information and appropriately prioritize those in need of housing is essential because not all data goes into a single system, and not all housing supports run through a single provider,” the report said.
The county’s children experiencing homeless, for example, numbered between 100 and 200, depending on the data source. Timeframe limitations, multiple approaches and inconsistent data collection were to blame, researchers concluded.
Built for Zero: Ending functional homelessness
A resident of Lawrence for 7 1/2 years, John Krehbiel meets the definition of both an advocate and frontline worker in the fight to end homelessness in Douglas County. In addition to working a day job, Krehbiel helps serve up breakfast at Jubilee Cafe twice weekly, co-chairs the Justice Matters Ending Homelessness Committee, and fills in as a direct service advocate at the Lawrence Community Shelter on an on-call, emergency basis. And last winter, he helped coordinate services at the Winter Emergency Shelter.
Krehbiel has made contact with many of Douglas County’s unhoused people. He said he felt saddened by the KU-CPPR’s preliminary report’s findings on race and gender disparities, but the racial disparities did not surprise him. “Homelessness at the end of the day, in this country, and in our community, really is a racial justice issue.”
Krehbiel also advocates for the unhoused by serving on Douglas County’s Built for Zero team. After a research-intensive process by advocates for the unhoused, at the annual Justice Matters Action Assembly in May 2021, then-Chair and Douglas County Commissioner Shannon Portillo and then-Mayor and Lawrence City Commissioner Brad Finkeldei made a commitment to end functional homelessness in 2023.
Using the Built for Zero model – which includes a framework to assess racial equity – achieving functional zero happens when the number of people experiencing homelessness falls below the average number of individuals exiting homelessness in a month. In other words, people could still experience houselessness, even after achieving functional zero.
Functional zero is a milestone that “must be sustained” and “when it’s achieved, homelessness is rare and brief for that population,” according to the Built for Zero philosophy. Communities achieve functional zero for chronic homelessness “using their quality, by-name data.”
With emphasis on the definition of functional homelessness and the importance of a reliable and accurate data management system, Krehbiel said that timeline still remained realistic, from his perspective.
The by-name list documents the movement of unhoused individuals through a community and its services. Krehbiel said it would serve as a key component and “step one” in achieving success in the Built for Zero model locally. He said the team was approaching completion of that step, acknowledging that some advocates felt the pace had gone slowly.
“I have always been from Day One, and I remain incredibly confident that using Built for Zero will get us as a community to functional zero and will help us maintain functional zero.”
But there is no finish line, Krehbiel added. The paradigm and mindset of the community have changed. “We’re not going back. We’re just going to continue to go forward. Because even if we reach functional zero by the end of 2023, or the middle of 2023, or the beginning of 2023, even if we reach it, we still aren’t done.”
Poverty and affordable housing issues have to be addressed in Douglas County to ensure the long-term success of the program, he said.
Research by KU-CPPR suggested increased engagement with property owners was needed to educate them about vouchers and subsidies to create more housing opportunities for renters with low incomes, and more options for permanent supportive housing were needed for those who experience chronic homelessness.
The report stated that some current requirements to qualify for housing vouchers, including a history lacking any evictions or drug-related criminal records, prevent some people from becoming and remaining housed.
With an average cost of $35,000 tax-supported dollars per chronically homeless person in the U.S. annually, Krehbiel said ending homelessness would not only save taxpayers money but improve lives.
“Obviously that’s the most important thing, but the beauty part is, that when we’ve done that, we’ve actually been more fiscally responsible.”DGCo-Homelessness-Interim-NA