Douglas County Commissioners on Wednesday heard the challenges facing an end to chronic homelessness in the county.
Owen Cox, a researcher from the University of Kansas Center for Public Partnerships and Research presented the findings of a two-part needs assessment on unhoused people.
“We’re really hoping that what you see here today, and what you see in the final report, which is forthcoming, will really help guide any future sort of plans that you might make around tackling some of the issues that the needs assessment has uncovered.”
After the presentation, Shannon Oury, executive director of Lawrence Douglas County Housing Authority, told commissioners part of the challenge of eliminating homelessness centers on re-entry into the housing market. Oury cited the example of attaining housing after experiencing homelessness multiple times.
Oury said that “getting into that second house is 10 times as hard.”
“Because what happens is, a lot of landlords are gonna run a credit check, or they’re gonna run some kind of check, and if you’ve been evicted or you’ve damaged their other units. Or another big problem, that Owen touched on, but really didn’t fully explain is, you left that unit with a lot of unpaid utilities, those follow you, and you can’t get utilities turned on in the new unit. And so you pay sometimes thousands of dollars in back-owed utilities.”
Losing landlords who had previously accepted housing vouchers, Oury said, also presents a problem, making the recruitment of more landlords much more important to ending chronic homelessness. Oury estimated 85 landlords have left housing rental assistance programs during the last two years.
“But what that doesn’t give you is the magnitude. In recent years, we’ve lost really big apartment complexes that maybe we had 25, 30 people with vouchers in. We’ve lost a trailer park.”
Commission Vice Chair Patrick Kelly asked about tenant right to counsel during eviction proceedings. Recent public comments have urged the commission to consider providing it, and Human Services Program Manager for Douglas County Gabi Sprague has expressed an interest in securing it.
Oury told the commission a competitive college-town housing market and nonrenewals of leases also influence homelessness. The eviction process is streamlined, Oury said, but nonrenewal of a lease lacks a process altogether.
“Every landlord basically has the right to say, ‘30, 60 days – I am not renewing your lease and you’ll need to be out.’ And that happened a lot. We had a real wave when we had the eviction moratorium on. We had a huge wave of nonrenewals. We didn’t have people evicting people. We had them nonrenewing people.”
Mathew Faulk, housing director for Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center, said another problem facing affordable housing is a “lopsided dependence on the private market.”
Faulk estimated the vacancy rate in 2005 at about 85%; today it’s about 3%.
“That level of shift, including a shift in ownership of properties, there’s been a significant shift away from private landlords, some landlords have passed away. Some landlords have gotten out of business, there’s large corporations who have come in and acquired properties. And when you put that all together, just in respect to the private market, that has really strained accessibility in a system that didn’t have a lot of other options, not a lot of nonprofit housing ownership.”
Faulk expressed empathy for landlords. Damages, Faulk said, do happen. “When you have someone who has a significant mental health issue and a significant substance use issue, and you have a strained workforce, we can’t be there every single day, it’s hard to get there even multiple times a week to see somebody and help support them.”
Faulk said, to move forward, more housing options are needed. “And that means also diversifying the type of housing they offer, not just whether it’s private or nonprofit, but what kind of housing it is.”
Centering voices with lived experiences
In partnership with the city of Lawrence and Douglas County, funding for the nearly $72,000 study comes from an American Rescue Plan Act allocation.
A key component included interviews with people who have experienced homelessness – either previously or currently. Commission Chair Shannon Reid said she appreciated the way researchers had centered those voices in the study.
Cox shared several quotes from interviews with the commissioners. Izzy said, “You feel alone, it’s terrifying. Just to know and to meet other people who were going through the same thing, and knowing that I wasn’t alone was such a relief.”
Bobby told an interviewer, “I would just want people to know … I just want a little. We just want some help. I don’t want any huge favors, just some help. I would do the rest myself.”
Cox said individuals gave perspective on a number of aspects, including the local social services workforce, avenues for experiencing joy, crisis mental health support and the importance of securing their personal belongings and feeling safe.
Some interviews revealed concerns for the strain on the workforce supporting them. “They really appreciated the people who ‘get it.’ And this is often folks who may have had experience themselves with homelessness and are able to provide care, that understands this person’s journey and where they’re at within the experience of homelessness in the community.”
The presentation also included findings from the initial data portion of the report, including data-collection challenges and disparities among people of color and women experiencing homelessness in Douglas County.
Black people are experiencing homelessness at a rate nearly five times higher than the county’s general population. For Indigenous people, the rate is three to four times higher, Cox said.
And nearly 51% of those experiencing homelessness identify as female. The national average for women ranks at 39%. “To be honest, we’re not telling you we’re totally sure what’s driving this particular factor, but it’s certainly something we’re interested in having investigated more fully.”
Jill deVries Jolicoeur, assistant county administrator, told commissioners the report also was scheduled to be presented to the Lawrence City Commission at its meeting June 14. A finalized version would be available later in June, and it would include the feedback gathered during presentations. She said staff also were scheduled to make a presentation on landlord engagement to the county commissioners in June.
Commissioner Shannon Portillo said she viewed the final report as “the centerpiece” of future community conversations on homelessness.