Draft strategic plan sets goals for Douglas County to reach functional zero homelessness

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A draft strategic plan sets a goal of 2028 for Lawrence and Douglas County to achieve functional zero homelessness. The plan emphasizes equity, inclusion, and correcting imbalances of power. 

Douglas County commissioners heard a presentation on the draft Housing and Homelessness 5-Year Strategic Plan Wednesday afternoon during a work session. The commission doesn’t take action during work sessions, but staff aim to bring a final plan back to the commission in June.

The roughly 30-page draft breaks the issues into five focus areas: Equity and Inclusion; Affordable Housing; Supportive Housing; Systems; and Emergency Shelter.

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What is functional zero?

The ultimate goal is to reach functional zero homelessness “through policy, system, and environmental changes resulting in all Douglas County residents having access to the fundamental human right of safe, accessible, attainable, and affordable housing, and which homelessness is a rare and brief occurrence.”

“Functional zero” is not zero homelessness, but it is bringing homelessness toward zero, and ensuring that the number of people experiencing homelessness at any given time does not exceed the community’s capacity to ensure positive exits from homelessness.

As the Built for Zero initiative explains it, “Imagine if the homeless system operated like a well-functioning hospital. That hospital will not necessarily prevent people from ever becoming sick. But it will ensure people are triaged appropriately, promptly receive the services they need, and address the illness, preventing further harm.”

City of Lawrence and Douglas County leaders committed in 2021 to reach functional zero homelessness by 2023. That goal is not going to be met. But the draft plan is the culmination of work since that time, and it creates framework with measurable goals over the next five years for which the local governments can be held accountable.

Equity and inclusion

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 2022 Douglas County Homelessness Interim Needs Assessment.

In addition, women constitute just more than 50% of people experiencing homelessness in Lawrence and Douglas County; national and regional trends see female representation at less than 40%.

The strategic plan includes goals such as identifying policy and project initiatives aimed at increasing homeownership, building intergenerational equity and improving housing retention with a focus on Black people and Indigenous people by 2026. Shorter-term goals include creating performance measures geared at tracking equity outcomes, and reviewing equity measurements, data reports and studies around affordable housing to determine disproportionalities.

Some goals in the plan also aim to give those directly affected by homelessness a voice. Some action steps to be completed this year include creating and implementing compensation for folks with lived experience to participate in planning groups, and requiring that all workgroups on this subject have at least one member with lived experience to inform and provide feedback.

Lea Roselyn, affordable housing administrator for the City of Lawrence, said power imbalances have been an issue in attempting to address equity issues. She said there’s a trend when new affordable or supportive housing developments have been proposed.

“What often will happen is the more privileged in our community, predominantly white homeowners, will come out in force,” she said. “And that has been a really powerful group and not just in our community but in others, but you know, we are not immune to this, and that has prevented really vital developments from moving forward.”

Roselyn said she wants to increase opportunities for people to participate in these conversations “so that we’re really hearing from the full breadth of our community, not just the most privileged who have access to the social capital.”

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Douglas County Commissioner Patrick Kelly said he something to think about is “how we empower people to lead, and those who are in positions of power, make it easier for others to lead in that space.”

Commissioner Karen Willey said members of the public often come to speak at meetings about land use agenda items, and they often talk about their rights. She said with those rights also come privileges and responsibilities. She suggested reframing that topic in the public sphere, though she wasn’t sure how to go about that.

“But I think we have a community that cares, and we need to kind of keep that in front of them, that ‘this is what care looks like,'” Willey said. ‘When something comes forward that requires either a sacrifice or a perceived sacrifice from you or from your neighborhood or from people that you know; that it is OK for us to sacrifice for one another. That is part of that responsibility.”

Action steps to identify key policy initiatives to ensure equitable access include researching and developing a plan for a local reparation program to address racial disparities within Douglas County; supporting nondiscrimination policies — such as the one the Lawrence City Commission approved Feb. 14 to ban source of income discrimination — and expanding protections to criminal history; and requiring universal design in new housing construction projects for affordable and supportive housing.

August Rudisell/Lawrence Times Douglas County Commissioner Shannon Reid, center, speaks during a work session on a homelessness and housing strategic plan, March 29, 2023.

Affordable housing

Affordable housing goals in the plan include increasing the supply of affordable rental housing for households whose incomes are 30-60% of the area median income (AMI) by 1,500 new units by 2028, with at least one-third of those being two to three bedroom units.

Another goal is to increase the supply of affordable homeownership housing for homeowners whose incomes are 30-80% of the AMI by 400 new units by 2028, with 25% of those units being four to five bedroom units.

The draft plan breaks down key organizations — such as Tenants to Homeowners and Habitat for Humanity — and people who will be important to those efforts, as well as grants to research. It also includes establishing a tenant legal representation work group and funding partners, and providing recommendations to Land Development Code Update Steering Committee for “code updates that allow for flexible, time-efficient and cost-effective affordable housing development.”

Another strategy is to establish a vacant structure ordinance, “which would allow the City of Lawrence to seize or otherwise remediate the issue if a property is left vacant and uninhabited.” That would be on a timeline to draft an ordinance change and enforcement policy by early 2026.

Supportive housing

The county needs more housing for chronically homeless people and families, older people, people with substance use disorders and/or mental illness, people involved in the criminal legal system and families involved in child welfare systems.

Although the total numbers of supportive and transitional housing units the county aims to build are smaller — 30 units for chronically homeless people, and 50 units for people ages 55 and up, for example — they are more resource-intensive in the long term. Some of the action steps include finding an agency or agencies to find and manage special grant funds, and one-time and ongoing nonprofit funding sources for partnership.

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The draft plan calls for identifying lead agencies to develop programming and agreements in the coming months, and to develop a network of providers to promote long-term housing, such as financial literacy, life skills, legal assistance and employment.

Another action step is to identify evidence-based practices for supportive housing service models, emphasizing harm reduction, trauma-informed care and more. The county will need to do community outreach to build buy-in, trust and engagement in supportive housing, according to the draft.

Systems

A key strategy emphasized in the Built for Zero initiative is the collection of “by-name” data, because “your community must know who is experiencing homelessness in order to end it.”

“Built for Zero communities know how many people are experiencing homelessness at any time,” according to the Built for Zero website. “But they know a lot more than that too. They know who each person is living without a home and what support they need to get back into housing. They know the length of time each person been homeless and what specific challenges are keeping them out of housing, like not having a driver’s license or birth certificate, for example.”

The draft plan emphasizes that consistent, universal collaboration is necessary in order for the Homeless Management Information System, or HMIS, to be effective.

Assistant Douglas County Administrator Jill Jolicoeur said the HMIS is not currently available to all providers that work with people who are homeless, in part because of licensing limitations, but “we’re working on it.” She also noted the importance of making it clear to people why this data is gathered.

August Rudisell/Lawrence Times Douglas County commissioners, staff and others meet for a work session on a homelessness and housing strategic plan, March 29, 2023.

“When you talk to folks about data, you need to make sure you’re talking, really, about trust, and how folks’ data is used — and that it’s being used to promote and coordinate care, and maintaining folks’ privacy, but that it is important,” she said.

By the end of 2024, partners aim to establish a dashboard of service provider availability, vacant beds, and current numbers of unsheltered people living in the community, according to the draft plan.

The systems also need goals and performance indicators to be established in line with the Built for Zero initiative, according to the draft, and an oversight group or steering body would assess data to develop performance improvement strategies based on gaps or inadequate performance.

Emergency shelter

The community cannot go from having hundreds of people sleeping outside to having a vast majority of those people housed overnight, and emergency shelter is still a necessity.

That’s especially true during freezing temperatures, and the City of Lawrence has already been doing that with its Winter Emergency Shelter.

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The draft plan was not entirely filled out in this section, but it includes some goals, such as:

By 2027, increasing noncongregate low-barrier emergency shelter beds for single adult females by 30; for youths, by 15; and for people fleeing domestic violence, human trafficking and/or stalking, by 15.

Increasing the number of low-barrier noncongregate emergency shelter beds for acute medical respite care by 10 — this would be for people who need to recover from surgery, or need hospice care.

The Pallet Shelter Village the city is planning to build on North Michigan Street is another example of emergency shelter options. That site may provide cabin-style shelters for up to 75 people this summer. (Read more about the project in the articles at this link.)

What’s next? + Make your voice heard

Staff members will present the draft plan to the Lawrence City Commission during their meeting on Tuesday, April 4.

There will be community engagement and listening sessions coming up (some details TBD):

Noon to 1:30 p.m. Thursday, April 20: A virtual community session, to be held via Zoom; visit this link
9 to 10:30 a.m. Friday, May 5: In person at Union Pacific Depot, 402 N. Second St.
5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Thursday, May 18: In person at the Lawrence Public Library
Mid-April or May, TBD: A virtual session with the Lawrence Association of Neighborhoods

The plan will be updated based on community feedback and finalized before it’s presented again to the Lawrence City Commission and Douglas County Commission in June, to then hit the ground running in July.

Here’s the full draft plan, along with a memo and presentation from Wednesday’s work session:

20230329-Draft-Housing-and-Homelessness-5-year-Strategic-Plan-w-presentation

Note: This post was updated to add a link to the virtual meeting.

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Mackenzie Clark (she/her), reporter/founder of The Lawrence Times, can be reached at mclark (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Read more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.

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