Lawrence Community Shelter to receive $2.7M in funding agreement with city

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Lawrence city commissioners on Tuesday unanimously approved a $2.7 million funding agreement with the Lawrence Community Shelter, which is vastly expanding its services to support people amid a growing homelessness crisis.

The new agreement marked a huge jump in city funding of the shelter — more than 9 times the 2023 budgeted amount of $296,000. The plan aims to fulfill multiple goals, Assistant City Manager Brandon McGuire told the commission. 

The funds will cover the shelter’s staff to operate the new Pallet shelter village on North Michigan Street, expand capacity at the main shelter campus on the eastern edge of town and create a more consistent plan for winter emergency sheltering, McGuire said. The city’s short-term solutions to winter sheltering have changed each of the past few years. 

$1.5 million in support will come from American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA, federal COVID-19 relief) funds already set aside in the city’s 2024 budget; $881,969 will come from the city’s general fund; and $269,000 will come from its special alcohol fund, tax revenues derived from alcohol sales.

Commissioner Amber Sellers said it was good that the community and commission had begun to realize their failing in caring for unhoused community members. She said that this agreement was merely a first step in continuing the city and county’s goal to help a growing number of people in the city without housing.

“Our commission and our community is finally starting to admit that we failed,” Sellers said. “That we failed this commission, that we failed this community, that we failed the city and the city staff and those who are experiencing homelessness.”

Public comment about the funding agreement featured members of Lawrence Shelter Workers United, workers at the shelter who have unionized with the Communication Workers of America Local 6400 labor union.

The workers, most of whom work directly with community members at the shelter, have asked for higher wages and more support since voting unanimously earlier this month to unionize. They continued that call Tuesday evening. 

“We members of LCS Workers United want to make it clear that we will not sit idly by while conversations are had that will directly change our wages, working conditions, and our job descriptions,” said Jacob Schmill, a direct service advocate at the shelter. “Decisions will not be made that affect us, without us.”

The workers are pushing for higher pay — $30 per hour. The lowest-paid shelter employees currently make $16.25 per hour, according to information discussed during a recent shelter board meeting. They’re also requesting paid time off and ceremonial time off for Indigenous employees, health care, dental and vision coverage.

Each commissioner extended thanks to the workers who spoke. Sellers took the strongest stand in support of the workers, arguing that the amount they were getting paid was insufficient and needed to be addressed.

“We have to get out of this idea that the folks who serve the most vulnerable deserve the least,” Sellers said.

The proposed budget would not cut staff wages or positions; it only provides funding to the shelter, McGuire said. What the shelter chooses to do with that funding is up to the shelter’s board. Employees of the shelter are not employees of the city. 

Charlie Bryan, president of the Lawrence Community Shelter Board of Directors, said negotiations with the union could affect the budget, making it one of a few uncertain areas in future budgeting. He said the shelter might come back to the commission to request more funds after negotiations with the union, or could try to raise the money needed privately through fundraisers.

Bryan said that the union and the shelter have scheduled their first meeting for Jan. 18. The Lawrence Community Shelter is also still in the process of hiring a permanent full-time executive director. 

“We recognize that it’s a significant investment in the community shelter, and we appreciate the partnership,” Bryan said.

The city will now make up 78% of the shelter’s funding, up from 36%

Vice Mayor Mike Dever said this shift from the city being a small funding partner to the majority funding partner shifts the relationship of the city with the shelter.

“This is a starting point we can all start from and hopefully can have a great relationship,” he said.

Commissioner Brad Finkeldei said he was excited about “where we’re going with this.” 

“I’m excited that a lot of planning over several years has culminated in getting to a point where we are looking to provide these services,” he said. 

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Cuyler Dunn (he/him), a contributor to The Lawrence Times, is a student at the University of Kansas School of Journalism. He is a graduate of Lawrence High School where he was the editor-in-chief of the school’s newspaper, The Budget, and was named the 2022 Kansas High School Journalist of the Year. Read more of his work for the Times here.

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