Director of Lawrence Community Shelter to resign; city leaders to discuss budget shortfall at upcoming meeting

photo by: Mike Yoder

Lawrence Community Shelter, 3655 E. 25th St.

Lawrence Community Shelter Executive Director Sarah Jane Russell has announced her resignation, which means the shelter for the homeless will begin a search for a new leader for the fourth time in as many years.

Russell began her position at the shelter in January, and she recently informed the shelter’s board that she plans to resign Dec. 31. Russell told the Journal-World that she loves her town and that while she finds nonprofit work rewarding and challenging, it’s a good time for her to move on from the shelter.

“It just often happens that there’s that moment that you realize I’ve done all that I can do to move something forward and now, in all good grace, it’s somebody else’s turn to do that,” Russell said.

photo by: Lawrence Community Shelter

Sarah Jane Russell

Russell is the fourth director the shelter has had since longtime director Loring Henderson retired in May 2014. Steven Robinson took over in May 2014 and resigned just seven months later, in December 2014. Brian Blevins then took the helm but left the following July. After that, Trey Meyer served 23 months before the board fired him in October 2017 for reasons that have never been disclosed.

Board President Thea Perry said she thought there was a perception that the shelter had been cycling through leadership but that Russell’s departure was a different situation than they’ve had in the past. Perry said Russell did not give an official reason for her resignation; she said the board has a good relationship with Russell and that she has done a fantastic job. She said she has a lot of respect for anybody who holds the position because it is a difficult one.

“It’s probably one of the most difficult organizations to lead in Lawrence and in the county,” Perry said. “The work that we do is extremely difficult and the shelter for many years has tried to be all things to all people. We are the resource of last resort for many people.”

Another of the shelter’s difficulties has been its finances. The shelter has had money problems in recent years, and Perry said the shelter was facing a budget shortfall for 2019. Because of some recent donations, Perry said she could not specify what the shortfall is at this moment but that the number would be confirmed and provided to Lawrence city commissioners next week.

City Manager Tom Markus told city commissioners at their meeting Tuesday evening that city staff had recently met with representatives of the shelter. Markus said the commission would be updated about changes at the shelter, including Russell’s resignation and the financial situation, at its meeting Dec. 11.

Markus told commissioners that the shelter was struggling financially and that he thought it was time to have a direct conversation about its future.

“At the end of the day, I really believe we’ve got to make this shelter work for our community,” Markus said. “Unfortunately, this is a real challenge for us because when the state started to reduce funding and support for social services, they kind of let it drift out into cities and counties.”

Markus noted some cities and counties have been less willing to take on those responsibilities. He said that as part of its meeting Tuesday, the commission will see statistics that show where the people using the Lawrence shelter come from. While he did not go into detail, he said that there are some equity issues to consider when it is just Lawrence and Douglas County funding the shelter.

Russell did not provide additional details about her reason for leaving or her future plans, but said she was still going to be a champion of the Lawrence Community Shelter and noted that she would be at the Lawrence City Commission presentation on Tuesday to discuss its future.

Perry said Russell would help support the search for an interim director and that the shelter would also be working to address the turnover of the shelter’s leadership. She said the shelter would not immediately be seeking to hire a new executive director and that instead a committee would be conducting a search for an interim director to lead the shelter as it reconsiders its management structure.

“We want to bring somebody in on a semi long-term basis, up to a year, and help get things to a point where they need to be,” Perry said. “I just don’t think that jumping right in and bringing in a new executive director, as has been done in the past, is going to help us be successful moving forward.”

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