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Power imbalances contribute to homelessness, housing issues in Lawrence, strategic planners say

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Commissioners emphasize desire for solid data, potentially tied to funding

Wages have not kept pace with rising rent rates and utility costs, and that has contributed to Douglas County’s increase in homelessness, subject matter experts told commissioners during a special meeting Wednesday. 

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The Lawrence City Commission and Douglas County Commission met jointly to discuss “A Place for Everyone,” the joint strategic plan to address local homelessness and housing issues. Commissioners first saw a draft of the plan in spring 2023, and Wednesday’s meeting was to get an overview of updates to the plan as well as start diving into more specifics. 

Lea Roselyn, affordable housing administrator for the city, and Gabi Sprague, housing and human services program manager for Douglas County, co-convened the affordable housing work group for the strategic plan and spoke to the commissions about that subject. 

City and county staff members have long emphasized that affordable housing is the solution to homelessness. 

Roselyn said power imbalances continue to tip the scale in favor of the privileged minority in the community, particularly white middle- and upper-class homeowners. 

Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Lawrence city commissioners and Douglas County commissioners listen to a presentation on the homelessness strategic plan during a joint meeting on Wednesday, Jan. 17, 2024. City Commissioner Lisa Larsen attended virtually.

As an example, Roselyn cited a project that would have brought more than 250 new affordable units to the eastern edge of town, but the planning commission denied developers’ rezoning request. Many folks living in the Brook Creek neighborhood organized and spoke at that meeting. But no one who spoke lived in the trailer park communities in the neighborhood or in one of the income-based affordable rentals home ownership units that have been developed in that neighborhood. 

“The lack of equitable representation was apparent in many, many ways,” Roselyn said, “and yet was a poignant example of how a large group of those with substantially more relative power than the would-be residents of the affordable housing development were able to stop a vital development from moving forward.” 

She said $18.27 is the required hourly wage to afford a market-rate two-bedroom apartment in Douglas County — that’s more than double the state minimum wage, and it means that even many community members who work full-time jobs are unable to afford the cost of living, she said. 

“Almost half of renters and almost a quarter of homeowners in Douglas County experience housing insecurity, meaning that they are just one emergency or rent increase away from homelessness,” Roselyn said. “Affordable housing therefore both prevents and is a solution to homelessness.”

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The revised plan includes updated goals for affordable housing. The goal now — which will require both policy changes and housing production, Roselyn said — is to have 1,500 new affordable rental units in the next five years, and 200 new home ownership units. Of those, the goal is that at least 100 will be fully ADA accessible, and 500 will have at least three bedrooms to accommodate families, Roselyn said. 

Accompanying that is a need to establish policy and system changes that realign power imbalances that result in inequitable access to affordable housing and social capital, Roselyn said. 

Equity and inclusion

Lacee Roe and Mariel Ferreiro serve as co-leads on the equity and inclusion portion of the strategic plan, and both spoke on that topic. 

Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Lacee Roe and Mariel Ferreiro

Roe said some progress has been made on goals from the earlier draft of the plan. For instance, Douglas County has approved a policy to pay people who have lived experience, and since then, they have been able to bring a few more people into existing work groups. 

Ferreiro said a goal is not only to give people with lived experience a seat at the table but also empower them to make decisions and choices, because that will directly affect their lives. She said some of the work groups have been discussing restorative housing models and reparations, specifically to the Black community, “and how we provide housing intentionally to them and help build back neighborhoods that have been historically marginalized or redlined.”

Pushing for better data

Kristen Egan, Douglas County regional coordinator for the Kansas Statewide Homeless Coalition, spoke about systems and infrastructure. 

One goal in the strategic plan is to increase participation in the Homeless Management Information System, or HMIS, by 20%. That’s the “by-name list” that includes more information about who is experiencing homelessness, their needs, services they’re receiving and more. 

Egan said the by-name list had maxed out around 305, and it included around 270 people as of Wednesday. 

Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Kristen Egan, left, Douglas County regional coordinator for the Kansas Statewide Homeless Coalition, and Jill Jolicoeur, assistant Douglas County administrator

Lawrence City Commissioner Amber Sellers asked why some community partners are not participating in the HMIS.

Egan said she wasn’t sure.

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She said she knows a lot of people are busy, but “when you give the assessment that gets you on the by-name list, it gets your client the opportunity to be enrolled in housing programs. So while I understand that they could be at capacity — the workers are at capacity and very busy — it’s a detriment to your client if you don’t get them on the by-name list.”

“… There are certain people that are doing the assessments, and there are certain people who are not. I’m not their supervisor. So I can only, every Tuesday at 2:30, beg them to do it,” Egan said.

Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Lawrence City Commissioner Amber Sellers, right, asks a question during the meeting.

Douglas County Commission Chair Karen Willey said she thought the goal of a 20% increase in participation in the HMIS was “not good enough.” 

“I think we have a tool that the community is asking us to use, we have access to that tool, and I think that seems like a very important starting point in order to build all the other pieces that we have in front of us,” Willey said.

Willey and Sellers indicated they might be interested in tying funding to participation. 

Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Douglas County Commission Chair Karen Willey

Douglas County Commissioner Shannon Reid, who is a direct service provider, said she understood, but she wanted to be cognizant of the “ever-growing list of demands” for service providers.

She said they need to think about infrastructure to support agencies to identify why participating in the HMIS is a difficulty and how to support them to do that.

Point in time count

One number that has come up in these conversations frequently is the “point in time” count, which is typically a count of people experiencing homelessness completed in one night each January. Lawrence’s PIT count saw an increase of 51% from 2022 to 2023. 

However, those directly involved with the counts have said they don’t believe the number is accurate, and that’s for a lot of reasons. Douglas County Commissioner Patrick Kelly asked about that, and the narrative around the large increase.

Misty Bosch-Hastings, homeless programs coordinator for the city, said her understanding was that the PIT count was done “over several days.”

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“So if you think about the population and what they’re doing day to day, it’s not really staying in the same spot. They’re going places looking for warmth and food,” Bosch-Hastings said. “And so to me, it made sense to make sure that we had a system to really capture a point in time.” 

This year, there will be a “huge” volunteer group, including folks with heat-seeking drones, that will start early on Thursday, Jan. 25 to complete the count. They’re going to try to catch folks at camps before they go about their day, Egan said. 

In January 2023, the by-name list included 100 people, and the PIT count was 351, Egan said. She said the by-name list is now more accurate.

“What I would like the public to better understand is that each community is in charge of their own PIT count. So if a community does not want to have a ‘homeless problem’” — Egan said, making air quotes with her fingers — “they’re not going to count that many people. So it’s really hard to compare these numbers from community to community. It’s also really hard to compare these numbers from year to year, because there’s variance in how the count is taking place.”

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Supportive housing needs

Bob Tryanski, director of behavioral health projects for Douglas County, spoke about the need for more supportive housing. 

Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Bob Tryanski, director of behavioral health projects for Douglas County

The county has had some wins with supportive housing space, he said, but a housing needs assessment found that the county needs nearly 400 units of permanent supportive housing, and “there is a need to increase our capacity, particularly as we move toward accomplishing the goals in this plan.”

Temporary transitional housing also needs to significantly increase, he said. Transitional housing is ideally intended to support someone for three to six months, but because of the lack of permanent supportive housing and a place to transition to, some folks are living in transitional housing for nine, 12 or even 18 months, Tryanski said. 

Big price tag

The updated plan did include an estimated price tag to accomplish everything it includes: about $109 million. 

Reid said the number was “a big scary number that is easy to put into headline and easy for people to react to. But it’s a big scary problem that we have a lot of complicated responsibility for.”

Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Douglas County Commissioner Shannon Reid, center, speaks during the meeting.
Focus areaCost estimate for 5-year plan
Equity and inclusion$45,025
Affordable housing$59,268,351
Supportive housing$28,431,000
Systems$25,000
Emergency shelter$20,997,105
Total$108,766,481
Cost estimates for each focus in the homelessness strategic plan

Reid said she thinks the city and county have gotten good at collaborating, talking to each other and figuring out how to maximize resources and avoid redundancy. She said they need to figure out how to leverage more state and federal funding.

“There are structures and systems in place that are more equitable and that are functioning in a healthy way and that are sustainable because we have made upfront investments that become sustainable, because it’s reflective of our values,” Reid said. 

Commissioners were not asked to take any action on the plan Wednesday. 

See more information and latest updates on the strategic plan at this link.

View the entire presentation and plan at this link

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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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