Gabi Sprague is the new human services program manager for Douglas County. She’ll focus on preventing homelessness and helping unify the work of local social service agencies. Though the title is new for Sprague, the work isn’t.
Sprague previously was the Housing Stabilization Collaborative (HSC) program manager with the United Way of Douglas County. HSC represents a joint effort of multiple community organizations that began as a grant-funded program through Family Promise of Lawrence after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The mission: preventing homelessness, eviction and loss of utilities while helping navigate community resources. That process can feel overwhelming to those who need financial support, especially during a pandemic.
“(HSC) keeps people from getting bounced around. It keeps you from needing to piecemeal together different rent assistance,” she said, noting how vital service coordination is to a household that seeks help from multiple support organizations.
Sprague also emphasized the benefits of teaming up with Tenants to Homeowners. By increasing landlord engagement and bringing “landlords along with us,” she said, housing stabilization increases as education about housing vouchers and rental assistance grows.
That work, Sprague said, centers on changing “a culture of disposability of folks and profit over people.”
In her new role, she’ll still work alongside HSC while exploring ways to enhance Douglas County’s eviction prevention toolbox. Plans are underway for a tenant-landlord mediation pilot project in collaboration with Building Peace and the City of Lawrence’s Affordable Housing Advisory Board.
Using restorative practices, Building Peace aims to provide mediation and conflict resolution that strengthens “community trust and security” while “upholding the dignity of all persons,” according to its website.
“The intent of that is to provide an opportunity for landlords and tenants to come together with an unbiased mediator before even getting to the courts,” Sprague said.
She also hopes to secure tenant rights to counsel in Douglas County. Studies across the country, including a comparative study in Minnesota, show tenants with representation have more equitable outcomes, better odds of winning their cases and higher likelihood of avoiding eviction and homelessness.
“Fully represented tenants win or settle their cases 96% of the time, clients receiving limited/brief services win or settle 83% of the time, and those without any legal services win or settle only 62% of the time,” the authors wrote.
The study also found that unrepresented tenants were “between four and five times more likely than fully represented tenants to face the worst possible outcome of an eviction case: The abrupt, forced departure from their homes by sheriff deputies.”
Sprague said she felt “very excited” about the possibilities here.
“That’s very much in the beginning stages, but I’ve been engaging some stakeholders regarding that. And looking to bring that up into the spotlight a little bit more in the coming year.”
‘Housing is a human right’
Sprague was born in the north central Kansas town of Belleville and lived in Concordia before she moved to Lawrence a decade ago to attend the University of Kansas. Originally focusing on business, Sprague changed majors, earning an English degree and minoring in German.
She worked in the restaurant industry and gravitated toward the nonprofit sector, which eventually led her to administration, finance and organizing structures. She joined the AmeriCorps Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA), an anti-poverty program that requires a year of full-time service with an organization. She worked for Communities in Schools of Mid-America, a nonprofit focused on connecting students with community resources in schools.
Sprague sees her personal housing experiences as primary influences in her housing work. She lives in Lawrence’s People’s Owned and Operated Collective House co-op, known as POOCH. Previously, she was POOCH’s director of finance and operations and now serves as its treasurer.
She called housing “central” to many aspects of life and believes access should be given to everyone.
“Housing is a human right and everyone deserves access to safe and accessible housing. And that looks different for a lot of different people.”
In this position, which is new for the county, Sprague said she hoped to “be a unifying hub for all sorts of service agencies” and support them while still working alongside the HSC.
Sprague said the Douglas County Human Services Coalition soon would change its name to the Coalition for Human Services to avoid duplication of the HSC acronym. She looked forward to facilitating its meetings and addressing the question, “How can we support social service agencies to collaborate and be the best that we can all be together?”
Sprague encouraged community members to join her in getting involved.
“There are tenant groups that people can become a part of. And if this is something important to you, if housing is something that a person has struggled with, I would encourage them to get involved and come to County Commission meetings and come to City Commission meetings and talk about what you’ve experienced.”