City Commission to decide on $100,000 request to help families transition from Lawrence Community Shelter

Lawrence Community Shelter, 3655 E. 25th St.

A family of seven who lived in the Lawrence Community Shelter for more than 400 days was helped out of it through a new rental-assistance program established by the city of Lawrence and Douglas County.

The New Horizons Family Housing Program was created to transition single- or two-parent families, such as that family of seven, out of the Lawrence Community Shelter with housing vouchers and one-time grants for security and utility deposits.

Douglas County contributed $50,000 to the program in October, most of which has already been used. The City Commission will decide Tuesday whether to approve the program’s parameters and provide $100,000.

“We’re already — with the county’s money — doing good work,” said Shannon Oury, executive director of the Lawrence-Douglas County Housing Authority, which is running the program. “We want the family to be able to be stably housed, without constantly having to worry about where they are going to lay their heads tonight.”

The idea for the program was brought up late last summer, after the Lawrence Community Shelter, which has room for 125 people, went to the city and county commissions asking for emergency funding. At the time, the shelter was facing a drastic revenue shortfall that a city audit later found was caused by a slow fundraising environment and the cost to the shelter of moving to a new facility in 2012.

The shelter’s financial struggles coincided with a decrease in funding to the Lawrence-Douglas County Housing Authority for a transitional housing program that closely resembles New Horizons.

Oury said the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development provided $300,000 for that program in 2011, and then cut funding nearly in half to $174,000 in 2014 and $200,000 in 2015.

As the funding dropped, a waiting list grew for those living at the Lawrence Community Shelter, campgrounds and other places who wanted transitional housing.

According to information provided to the city earlier this year, 671 individuals and families were on waiting lists for affordable housing in Lawrence. More than 100 were waiting for some type of rental assistance.

“The last few years, the last three at least, the funding has been cut significantly, and the waiting list has grown a lot,” Oury said. “So in August, when the shelter was having trouble with its budget, there was a conversation about, ‘Well, how do we get people moving along from the shelter to other types of housing?'”

The City Commission already approved allocating $100,000 from its 2016 budget to the new rental-assistance program, but it hasn’t yet reviewed how it will work. The city’s Affordable Housing Advisory Board worked on the parameters in February. It’s recommending the city approve them Tuesday and contribute the promised one-time payment of $100,000.

The board decided preference for the vouchers should be given to residents of the Lawrence Community Shelter, which “could help the shelter approve their costs,” according to a city memorandum.

Assistance will first go to families. Families who can prove they’re Douglas County residents will be the most preferred.

The advisory board considered a preference for families with at least one person working or a preference for single parents. Oury, who serves on the advisory board, said members decided against those parameters because they thought it would create too many restrictions.

There was also the thought that family units may split to meet the preference for single-parent families and move up on the waiting list.

“If we put a lot of other restrictions on it, it can lead to a bunch of unintended consequences to people we really intend to help,” Oury said. “We didn’t want to make it any harder than it already is to house these families.”

Families that qualify and have a gross annual income below 50 percent of the median income for Douglas County are referred to the program by staff at the Lawrence Community Shelter.

Those receiving the assistance pay what they can of rent and utility bills while the Housing Authority pays the remainder directly to landlords and utility providers. Housing has to be located in Douglas County.

The assistance lasts for two years, during which households must be supported by services to help them become more self-sufficient. Those “wraparound” services are provided by local agencies such as Bert Nash Center Homeless Outreach Team, Heartland Community Health Center, Family Promise and Willow Domestic Violence Center.

At the end of the two years, families could receive a federal Section 8 voucher that provides a subsidy directly to landlords, with tenants paying the difference.

With the $50,000 from Douglas County, the Housing Authority has placed two families, and another two have completed their registration and are looking for rentals. Two more are in the application process.

Once those six are housed, the county’s money will likely be used up, Oury said. More families are waiting for the city’s funding to become available.

The City Commission will meet at 5:45 p.m. Tuesday at City Hall, 6 E. Sixth St.