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Archive for Thursday, February 5, 2004

Coordinated effort

February 5, 2004

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Agencies providing services for local homeless people may be able to do more with less if they can figure out a way to better coordinate their efforts.

In the current leaner, meaner economic climate, even social services groups are expected to do more with less. People providing funding for such agencies are demanding that they coordinate their efforts and avoid duplication of services.

It's a reasonable request that agencies should be required to address or risk the loss of funding.

A great example of the need for better communication can be found in the well-intentioned efforts to help homeless people in Lawrence. In trying to fill various gaps for the city's homeless, the efforts of a number of groups have led to a hodge-podge of services in the community.

It also has led to multiple requests for funding from the local charities and governmental bodies that are growing more concerned about how their money is being used and whether it could be used more efficiently. That legitimate concern was discussed this week by representatives of five major charitable funders: United Way of Douglas County, the city of Lawrence, Douglas County government, the Douglas County Community Foundation and the Rice Foundation.

The group has identified six agencies that provide services for the homeless. Several of the agencies provide food; several provide shelter. It only makes sense that if they got together and pooled their efforts, they could provide better services, perhaps at a lower cost.

But there are obstacles. The Salvation Army, for instance, runs an overnight shelter but it won't allow people who have been drinking alcohol to stay there. That puts them at odds with the Lawrence Open Shelter, which wants to provide shelter for anyone who shows up at the door. Both agencies are seeking money -- both charitable donations and taxpayer subsidies -- to provide services. Is there a way to coordinate services and make them more cost-effective?

It's a legitimate question, but not even the groups trying to address it seem able to get on the same page. City Commissioner Mike Rundle has convened the Lawrence Task Force on Homeless Services to develop strategies to coordinate services for the homeless. This group, however, is separate from the Lawrence Coalition on Homeless Concerns, another effort at an umbrella group.

All of these groups deserve credit for their efforts, but the bottom line is that there's a good chance services for the homeless -- and probably other social services in the community -- could be improved if the agencies providing them could coordinate their resources and their planning.

Jo Bryant, executive director of United Way of Douglas County, may be in a better position than about anyone else in Lawrence to understand this issue. As someone whose primary job is to raise and distribute charitable funds, she knows, as she said at Tuesday's meeting, that "resources don't just go on forever."

That's all the more reason for all the agencies involved to redouble their efforts to work together and make sure those resources are used wisely.

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