Chat about homeless issues with Steve Ozark

January 25, 2007

This chat has already taken place. Read the transcript below.

Steve Ozark

A longtime advocate for increased services for the homeless wants to have a question on the April ballot asking voters to make funding the issue a top priority. Steve Ozark, vice chairman of the Coalition on Homeless Concerns and the coordinator for the Interfaith Initiative, has asked city commissioners to give voters in the April city elections an opportunity to support additional funding for homeless and poverty-related programs. He takes your questions Thursday.


Hi, everybody. Welcome to today's chat. I'm Christy Little, your moderator. Today we have Steve Ozark, of the Coalition for Homeless Concerns, to talk about recent issues in the news.

Steve Ozark:



First, Steve, some of our readers may not know what you do in the community. Would you tell us a little bit about yourself?

Steve Ozark:

I am simply a peson who advocates helping people in need. I got involved some five years ago when the Salvation Army didn't have staff to stay open during the brutal winter. So I reached out to the community and people were willing to help. So I am no expert, but I've studied poverty and homelessness locally and on a national level, and I see fixes in our gaps in Lawrence so we can give people a hand up moreso than a handout.


Steve, can you tell us about the referendum you proposed to the City Commission last week and why you think it's important?

Steve Ozark:

I believe we are losing community focus on taking care of the gaps in our system of services. I want to see what people in Lawrence think of when they hear the word "homeless" and try to change some prejudices that many of us may have. For example, homelessness as we know it today didn't exist in the great numbers we have now (750,000 people are known to be homeless in the U.S.). In the 1980's the Federal Government stopped funding many programs that helped fight poverty, so we have brought homelessness to the richest country in the world by neglect.


So if funding were available, what do you think would be the best use for it? Would it be temporary housing assistance, counseling, job placement ... what are the top priorities? And who would distribute it?

Steve Ozark:

My opinion and research is showing that the Housing First model is working in big and small cities. San Francisco has done a great job of getting more than 1,500 people off the streets and into housing with wrap-around, supportive services. In two years, 85% of those folks are still houses. That's not only humane, it saves a lot of money. A trip to the emergency rooms costs as much as a month's rent, sometimes more. So housing first is what I'd recommend, but we have other gaps in Lawrence that need to be addressed. The City appointed the CCH (Community Commission on Homelessness) to enact the Task Force Recommendations, which I was a part of. They are focusing now on a detailed shelter that would give adequate space, programs and beds instead of a 1/2-inch mat on the floor. So that is very important as well.


OK, we'll take some questions now from our readers.


If additional funding comes from the taxpayers, would you object to increased vagrancy laws and enforcement?

My concern is that currently in the City there are several resources available to transients, but those resources are not utilized because of the requirements related to sobriety. My fear is if we make Lawrence a haven for homeless it will be in effect an open door policy that will just continue to need more financial resources.

Steve Ozark:

Regarding people flocking to Lawrence, I think that is grossly exaggerated, although people do come here from other towns, just I did, and most of the people I know in town are from elsewhere. So whether your houses or unhoused, Lawrence is a great community. There are severly limited resources and I'm all for putting the resources where they will 1) prevent homelessness, 2) help people on the streets get off the streets. People who want to abuse the system, as I am told, leave town because they are found out and not given carte blanche. People breaking the law should be charged. But I don't think poverty is a crime. I would not be for increased vagrancy laws - it criminalizes a public health issue. I would say that most all the people on the street do not want to be there. I have only once seen a group of young guys who were passing through during the summer. Many of our homeless citizens are just that - citizens of Lawrence.


IS there a way with in the confines of our local debat to define the difference between assistance and enabling?

Steve Ozark:

That's a very touchy subject I've found. I imagine that each individual sees this issue differently and so your or my definition may be totally off base. The positive way to work with individuals in need is to meet them where they are at, understand their goals, their dreams, their triggers, their problems and their various needs. When relationship is formed, trust can be built. Very few people I meet on the stret have ANY sense of self-value. Their emptiness and lack of value is painful to experience. Anyway, for me, I never give out money to individuals, I try to give out opportunites. Food and shelter are basic human needs and should be given, but if we get on the front end of prevention and housing, we will have more people working their way out of homelessness, which is the goal. I'm sorry not to better answer your question. That issue is dealt with by each person who serves people in need.


Mr. Ozark, Please tell me how you would hold the homeless people who receive our money accountable for their actions. I think most people would support help for those that truly need and want a hand up, but there must also be accountability for those that just want to hang out and get high or drunk. I do not want to give those people a single nickel of my tax dollars.

Steve Ozark:

I understand your feeling there, and there are a whole lot of people that agree with you. The people I meet on the street are not having a party. No one I meet is having fun. They have an addiction, maybe more than one, many with mental illness, probably coming from living a life of crisis. Waiting in lines to be told there's no room, or to go to another line, or to come back later - that is a daily experience for people on the streets. Everyone I meet in the service providers out there tries to get people sober and straight, and most of the programs and benefits given in Lawrence require this or working towards this. I think that funding should be done something like 50% towards prevention, 25% towards case managers (who are out on the streets and at people's homes and very little time in the office), and 25% to shelter care. That shelter care number should decrease if we are successful in housing and rehabilitation. The food kitchens and pantries that are in Lawrence are all completely privately funded, most by churches, who, as I believe too, we want to help people who can't, even those who won't help themselves. But the priority needs to be hands up. The shelter we have allows people who have been drinking or using to come in. We're definitely better off as a community to have those folks at a shelter than wandering the streets. They work with rules and enforcement the best they can. But it's difficult work. I understand that kicking alcohol addiction takes 12 tries for the average person - meaning someone who has a home to go to. So it's got to be herculean to kick an addiction living on the street.


Hi Steve:

What kind of programs are available at the Open Shelter during the day? It seems as though there needs to be something for these folks to do, during the day. What ways can other agencies collaborate to provide services? I guess my question is, what kinds of services are needed?

Steve Ozark:

I agree, and people have been volunteering at the shelter to do health classes, massage, educational classes but it's never enough. They've started a jobs program making dog biscuits and paining addresses on rocks, but I heard that's maxxed out, so more jobs ideas are desparately needed. The shelter is simply too small to do what is needed in a shelter. Hopefully the city will help change that.


In our community, there seems to be very little empathy or compassion for the plight of the homeless. The negativity & insensitivity targeted towards them on local blogs is shocking. Is this attitude towards the homeless unique to Lawrence, or is this the prevailing attitude in every community across our country? I find the comments disheartening and feel most people have no clue how the majority of homeless people ended up where they are today. Thoughts?

Steve Ozark:

I only read one blog once - about KU basketball, so reading the comments on the referendum article was a shock. I never knew I was homeless, drive a beamer, am a trust fund kid, am a yuppie and a hippy... you get the idea. What I learned from the blog was that what a lot of people were saying quite rudely is what a lot of people say to me quite nicely, so there's something there. We have an image that homelessness is the guy downtown who's drunk asking for money and being anywhere in our sight. The fact is that of the 750,000 people experiencing homelessness, 40% are families with children. Here in Lawrence, 12 of the 15 schools have children attending who are known to be homeless, and everyone suspects there are many more. Generational and situational poverty are not easily understood through our middle class values and upbringing. We need to realize that we have poverty in Lawrence and that it affects thousands of people at one time or another. The best fix is to nip it in the bud before it becomes a way of life. All we tend to see are those who have homelessness as a way of life. Permanent, supportive housing can change that. We can get people off the streets and into their own place, we'll not only do the humane thing, we'll do what is cost effective as well. There are many people who cannot qualify for the Douglas County Housing Authority assistance in housing. They do an outstanding job of getting people who do qualify into homes, but more than half fail in the first year, as the support component is simply not there. We can close the gaps we have in Lawrence. We have the models and have seen effective programs that will address our gaps. We merely need the will power to do so. I for one think that addressing poverty in Lawrence would be the greatest thing that we could do. I hope that the City and County leadership will look carefully at all the prorities out there and see that an investment in the people of Lawrence will pay off for generations to come. I hope that you will too.


Steve, is there anything else about the proposed referendum or homeless issues in general we haven't asked you? Thanks for sharing some final thoughts with us.

Steve Ozark:

Thank you for having me. Discussion and understanding of poverty in Lawrence is very important. We have an amazing community compared to most anywhere else I've traveled in the world (I book bands for a living, so I've traveled extensively). I'm proud to tell people I'm from Lawrence. We simply need to be honest with ourselves as to what we are willing to do to help people in need. Some people write checks, some people go out for an activity, some people change someone's life, some people turn their backs. It's an individual decision and I hope more people feel the urge to take their time and talents and share them wherever they can.

As far as a referendum, I would guess we would lose that vote at this time, as was brought up in this discussion - a perception that many people have that people choose to be homeless, and why should I work hard so someone else doesn't have to. I believe we'd only lose a referendum because people don't understand what we're asking for, or that it can be fixed, or that we have the money and talent to do so. I'm certain we do.

I'd invite you to visit the shelters,get on my email list, go to one of the many informative meetings to broaden your perspective and see where you fit in. My email is if you have further comments, want to receive emails, or want to get involved.


Readers interested in learning more about Housing First, the program Steve mentioned earlier, can check out the national Web site,

Steve, thanks for joining us today.

Steve Ozark:

Thank you for tuning in on this discussion. If we haven't met, I hope to see you out there making a difference.


Shelby 11 years, 3 months ago

This may be begging the question, but what about moving the homeless shelter out west to where the various opulent neighborhood committees would have to deal with the homeless blight in their neck of the woods? Might that foment more effective decision-making on the part of the citizens of Lawrence?

Stephen Roberts 11 years, 3 months ago

If Mr. Ozard wants more money to fund the homeless programs, maybe we should tax concerts more. Concerts are luxuries and are not an necessity.

Oh wait that would hurt him because he manages and performs in a band.

shirinisb 11 years, 3 months ago

The only comment I really have regarding the homeless is that they oftentimes interact forcefully. Usually I walk past at least 2-5 people a day asking me for change. I would say 50% respond rudley. This causes me to avoid Mass St. now, which means I spend less money there. I'm sure I am not the only person to feel this way.

I love helping the less fortunate and I understand that a lot of the homeless have emotional and developmental problems, but along with giving them food and shelter we should try to make basic manners part of their life. When I walk down the street with my 5 year old I don't want a drunk woman demanding I give her change for a bus ride. It's really scary.

BS20 11 years, 3 months ago

Moving it west would bring property value way down in the up and coming growth areas which would only hurt the economy meaning less money for the homeless.

girly 11 years, 3 months ago

What we see of the homeless situation is mainly the vagrants loitering around downtown, begging for money, and sleeping at the library. I would be more apt to donate or vote for financial assistance for homeless if I knew it was going to families with school children, rather than the drunk guys we see. Hasn't the JW actually done articles interviewing some homeless guys who said they just liked being on their own and not working? I don't support them, and I don't think they should be able to stay at the shelter unless they are sober. That's enabling. Good luck, I'm glad someone is trying to help, but you can't help someone unless they are also trying to help themselves.

kansasrose 11 years, 3 months ago

It can be scary walking downtown, in Lawrence, in Topeka, in Madison, WI, in Chicago, anywhere. That's the point: homelessness IS everywhere. We can't get away from it. But, I believe we have the capacity to solve this problem. And, I can't believe people aren't willing to put the effort into helping solve the problem. I guess that is what disappoints me the most about this issue in Lawrence: it's not that we are doing all that we possibly can to help those in need in Lawrence, but, instead, we're doing all that we can, to ignore those in need. My kids and I spend an hour or so a week gathering items for one of the shelters. It's not much, but, it's something. We aren't wealthy, and in some circles I suppose we'd be labelled as the working poor, but, we're better off than those that live on the street. Isn't that what we all should be doing? Helping those less fortunate than ourselves, just a little?

damnocracy 11 years, 3 months ago

A few facts...many enablers of the homeless population in our community, such as Mike Rundle, Hilda Enoch, and the Lawrence Community Shelter folks, flat out LIE when they continue to say that Lawrence is not a destination point for individuals who are homeless.

I attended a meeting of concerned residents of a proposed homeless shelter near the intersection of 31st and Lawrence Avenue. Presented were numerous Journal-World articles, police records, etc relating to homeless troublemakers. Almost every homeless individual came to Lawrence from other places. Some came because they have "family" here, but things didn't work out. Some came here because they were either bussed here directly from prison or brought by law enforcement/agenices because Lawrence provided services, and some said, well, Lawrence has a cool scene!

Unless the enablers create a system that can separate the drunks, criminals, and illegals from the children and mentally challenged who legitimately deserve help, I'm afraid I can't support any public money put into this problem. That is where the effort should be put.

Instead, people spend time trying to figure out ways to enable drunks, druggies, criminals, and career homeless excuses.

galfromku 11 years, 2 months ago

Ok.. I tried to write this but LJW won't let me write more than 3000 characters, so I will have to do this in several smaller entries. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Sometimes the ones who are drunks or druggies ARE the ones with mental illness issues. When someone is jobless, or has poor insurance. That makes it difficult to get medication that is so costly. I can say this from experience.

I have been a perfectly "healthy & normal" individual and have held a job at KU for 7 yrs. Last summer some things happened to me that were out of my control and I ended up checking myself in for help for a while.

I was not chemically dependant (in fact they took a blood test the day I arrived to make sure, but drug their feet on obtaining the results until 4 days later) and I was told that out of the 75-80 people in the facility that I was the only one who was not "on" something."

All the while those first few days I was treated in ways were worse than anything you could ever imagine in the movies. It never really got better.

I had less than adequate essentials like blankets, clean sheets, food, etc. Soon I realized I had to play their little games just to be allowed the opportunity to do something as simple as get towels to shower. They also did not let anyone call out to friends or family members until you "proved" you deserved it and then you had to have a phone card. After I was there for almost a week, I got a scheduled 30 minute visitation by my family and told them to bring me a phone card. It felt like jail or I was being punished, instead of somewhere I voluntarilay went to for help (that cost over $1700 a day at that!)

galfromku 11 years, 2 months ago

I had to keep a low profile and never let them even see my cry because if they saw you cry they would label you "unstable" and put a 48 hour hold on you and then you would be stuck there even longer.

I experienced first hand how mentally ill and chemically dependant people are treated when they are desperately trying to get support from people/programs that are "SUPPOSEDLY" in the business of helping them. I was not chemically addicted or a drunk or anything and so I was in more of a right mind and in control than the other residents of the program (who by the way changed personalities at different times of they day depending on what they were drugging them up completely change in a matter of minutes and see them go from relatively clear headed people to zombies after they got drugged up because it was easier for the workers.

Because I had good insurance, they wanted to keep me there even though I was not receieving the care I needed. In fact I was told point blank that the reason I was neglected was because I was high functioning and others needed it more.

I got so upset with the situation that at one point I actually went MYSELF and dug out the dirty sheets and blankets and washed them and passed them out to the residents.

Others were only allowed to stay at the facility for 2 -3 days until they de-toxed, then were kicked out without any help to them to establish tools or patterns so they don't have a relapse.

If you met me, you would have no idea I have been through this. I managed to hold to my job (I would have fired myself!. But only because I have extremely understanding bosses. I am finally back to work full time and even with insurance the medical bills have caused me to become so far in debt (don't forget I am talking about mental health costs too, not just physical stress)that I just can't bring myself out of the hole financially. I am going to lose my home very soon and currently moving in with my mom, just to try and get on my feet again.

I know it probably seems like the bums and druggies and drunks are just moochers, but after living through the past 6 months, I can certainly see how the system does not work.

I was one step away from BEING one of the homeless that are/was struggling with mental health issues. Topeka has a fine program in place so I don't see Lawrence getting overflow from that direction.

I also feel like until and unless a person has been in that situation, you have no idea what is happening and how to handle it.

I for one will never condemn another homeless person again because I don't know the story of what brought them to the situation they are in.

I am afraid also of beggers who ask for money. I don't like being approached any better than you do. I don't know what to do about it. but certainly wish people could try to have more understanding and compassion.

galfromku 11 years, 2 months ago

AND... The whole thing made me feel like If wasn't crazy when I checked in there... I certainly felt like I was afterwards. It could cause a person to drink or do drugs.

trinity 11 years, 2 months ago

wow gal. keep on keepin' on, girl; there's a reason you pulled out of all that. i have a feeling you are fine or are going to be!

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