Archive for Wednesday, December 1, 2004

Complex problem

Lawrence is a caring community that wants to help those who are less fortunate, but providing services to the homeless continues to raise almost as many questions as answers.

December 1, 2004

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A couple of recent reports in the Journal-World once again confirm the complexity of providing services for homeless people in Lawrence.

The Salvation Army has begun private fund raising for a new $4.5 million "state of the art" homeless shelter and social service facility in east Lawrence. At the same time, organizers of the Lawrence Open Shelter are seeking to expand their facility at 944 Ky.

In addition to these charitable efforts to help the community's homeless, the city's Task Force on Homeless Services is working on a coordinated plan of attack that would include a shelter open 24 hours a day, five new paid staff members, additional mental health services and new efforts to find jobs and housing for homeless people.

The Salvation Army and Lawrence Open Shelter and other local agencies deserve the community's thanks for their efforts to provide food and shelter for the homeless. However, because these charitable efforts bring different philosophies to their work, they have found it difficult to coordinate their efforts.

Even though the new Salvation Army shelter plans to provide wonderful accommodations for people who are trying to find work, that model doesn't fit all of Lawrence's homeless. People who drink aren't welcome there -- a gap that the Lawrence Open Shelter was founded to fill -- and people with mental illnesses that prevent them from finding work probably would have to look elsewhere for help.

Many groups are providing services for the homeless, but there still are gaps and repetition of services. The city task force is seeking a way to solve that problem, but the plan it is proposing would require considerable public money and support.

The unspoken concern of many Lawrence residents is that the city's efforts to help its homeless may make Lawrence at least a regional magnet for more homeless people. Most local residents see the need to take care of our own, but will more services actually increase the problem of homelessness? Some would say that already has happened.

The city probably could serve a useful coordinating role for agencies serving the homeless, perhaps even providing help that would stretch the charitable dollars currently supporting such services. But a plan that calls for five new city employees or the city taking a central role in owning or operating a homeless shelter should be approached with caution.

A number of dedicated churches and charitable groups put considerable effort into reaching out to Lawrence's homeless population. The city already gives considerable support to their efforts through services such as the public transportation system and low-income housing programs.

Rather than looking at plans that require significant infusions of public money, the city should concentrate its efforts on finding ways to help the current public-private partnership better coordinate and deliver services for Lawrence's homeless.

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