Survey: Lawrence homeless population increases 32 percent since 2013

photo by: Nick Krug

The majority of the beds in the men's sleeping dorm at the Lawrence Community Shelter were occupied on Wednesday, Jan. 17, 2018.

An annual count of Lawrence’s homeless population indicates it is growing at more than four times the rate of the overall population.

Over the past five years, “point-in-time” surveys found that the number of homeless people in Lawrence increased by 32 percent. Over that same time period, city estimates indicate the overall population increased by only 7 percent. Though the count can be variable in nature, leaders of local shelters and organizations that serve the homeless said their numbers also indicate homelessness is growing.

Mathew Faulk, housing program manager for Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center, said it’s hard to gauge exactly how much the homeless population has increased due to factors that can affect a count, which occurs over a 24-hour period, but that the numbers are certainly rising.

“As a service provider that is there day in and day out throughout the year, we look at our own numbers too, over the long haul,” Faulk said. “And yes, I think it’s a resounding yes.”

Lawrence Community Shelter Director of Operations Charles Frager said he thinks some of that growth is that those conducting the count are getting better at finding homeless people, but he also agreed that the problem is growing. Frager said the shelter’s beds are consistently at more than 90 percent capacity.

A growing problem

The annual point-in-time homeless survey is conducted every year in January, and results of the survey were posted Friday. The federally required survey is conducted by surveying homeless people on the designated day, and it includes people living on the streets and those staying in an emergency shelter or in a formal transitional housing program.

Leaders with Family Promise, which serves homeless families, also said they are seeing a higher demand for their services. Family Promise Executive Director Dana Ortiz said she thinks the survey actually underestimates the homeless population, because it uses such a strict definition of homelessness. She said Family Promise has seen a steady increase of families seeking help, and their housing offerings are at full capacity.

“We get at least 300 or more new family calls each year,” Ortiz said, adding that the organization recently expanded services to be able to serve 22 families at a time. “If we added budget and staff, we could double that number so easily because the need is so great.”

The 2018 count surveyed 294 homeless people, up from 223 in 2013, according to the results. The 2018 figure actually represents a slight drop from last year, but state officials said the longer-term trends are more relevant due to the variable nature of the survey.

photo by: Mackenzie Clark

Number of homeless individuals in Lawrence, based on point-in-time surveys (data for 2014 not listed on city of Lawrence website)

Natasha Derakhshanian, program coordinator with the Kansas Statewide Homeless Coalition, said the survey does not count people who don’t have a home of their own but are staying with friends or relatives. It also does not count people in jails, hospitals, rehab or sobriety centers who would otherwise be homeless. She said it’s important to look at more than just year-to-year trends, and to bear in mind that the actual numbers are higher.

“There are a lot of homeless people who would be considered homeless on any other night, except for the night of this count, to fit the definition of the task at hand,” Derakhshanian said. “It’s important to know that the number doesn’t reflect the total amount of people homeless on that night in January.”

Derakhshanian also said Lawrence is not an outlier, and homeless numbers have been increasing at both the state and national levels due to several factors, including the availability of affordable housing, well-paying jobs and mental health services.

When housing is hard to find

Those same national trends may also be at play at the local level.

Though all emphasized that homelessness is a complex problem, one contributing factor noted by those who deal with the homeless locally was the short supply of affordable housing in Lawrence.

Frager said there are a lot of contributing factors to homelessness, and that there is really no umbrella that you can throw over the whole population. He said services at the shelter address issues with employment and substance abuse, as well as building skills for successful tenancy. But there seems to be one commonality.

Frager said finding affordable housing in Lawrence is a big challenge, especially for those working entry-level positions. In addition, he said there are long waits for the voucher programs that would help subsidize rents.

“Our real goal is to find a foundation to have successful housing,” Frager said. “… The problem is the availability isn’t there.”

Faulk also noted a lack of affordable housing. He said the city’s overall population growth is putting more demands on the already limited affordable housing that is available. Faulk also said that competitiveness extends to the job market and access to social services, at both the state and local level. He said those services are spreading thinner as the city’s population grows.

“Locally the demographic is that the cost of housing has increased, wages have not really increased, and we are struggling to maintain the level of services and support that would be sufficient per capita as we grow in numbers,” Faulk said.

Ortiz said the issue is threefold for many families. She said many of the homeless families that Family Promise serves have jobs, but when families are living paycheck to paycheck, it doesn’t take a lot to cause a crisis that results in getting behind on rent and evicted. She said even a car breaking down or a child’s illness can result is a family losing their housing.

“I often think of it as a three-legged stool: there is income, there is child care and there is transportation,” Ortiz said. “And if either of those legs get cut short or fall off, you don’t have a stable stool.”

In the past few years, the city has begun an effort to address its affordable housing shortage, forming an Affordable Housing Advisory Board and reinitiating funding for the city’s housing trust that funds affordable housing projects and programs. In November, Lawrence voters approved a special sales tax increment that will generate about $1 million annually for the trust from 2019-2029.

When considering the five-year increase in homelessness, Vice Mayor Lisa Larsen said affordable housing is one component of a big picture. Larsen also said she thinks the loss of social services at the state level has been a key factor, and she noted Douglas County’s efforts to improve mental health care locally. Larsen said she thinks the new sales tax can help the city begin to address the affordable housing shortage.

“The piece that I think the city can handle right now is the affordable housing part,” Larsen said. “If we can get in front of that problem, and that’s a long time down the road I think, that will help some. But it won’t be the full answer to the problem.”