City’s recommended budget proposes new division with focus on homelessness, reallocation of social service funding

photo by: Rochelle Valverde

A handful of tents are seen in Watson Park on April 1, 2021.

As Lawrence struggles to help the increasing number of people experiencing homelessness, including many living in encampments, the city manager’s recommended budget calls for creating a new division to address the issue.

City Manager Craig Owens’ recommended budget for 2022 allocates $4.78 million in local, state and federal funds toward the new Housing Initiatives division in a manner that would be budget neutral. The division would incorporate the city’s existing housing and neighborhood programs, and the proposal would dedicate new resources toward addressing homelessness specifically. It would reallocate two vacant police positions and take advantage of new grant opportunities, and $1.14 million that the city previously spent more broadly on social services would be earmarked specifically for programs related to homelessness.

Owens has described the proposal as “refocusing” the city’s efforts and the money it spends on providing funding to outside agencies.

“This is putting the resources in one place so that we can be very strategic and efficient at using tax dollars,” Owens said.

If ultimately approved by the City Commission as part of the ongoing budget process, the division would house three reallocated or grant-funded positions focused on homelessness. The division would also help distribute the $1.14 million to three specific areas: homeless outreach, emergency sheltering and rapid rehousing. Though some social service agencies might not get city funding under the new format, city leaders say there is additional funding available locally that can help support those agencies.

Addressing homelessness

It’s estimated there are more than 200 people living outside in Lawrence, and encampments and even makeshift structures have increased in city parkland, near the Kansas River and in other locations in the city. Meanwhile, due in part to financial issues and the coronavirus pandemic, the local homeless shelter has not been operating at full capacity for two years. In the past two winters, volunteers and the city have run temporary overnight shelters — operating in either churches or hotels — that have drawn dozens of people away from encampments or their cars, only to force them to return to those makeshift arrangements in the spring.

As both the struggles of those experiencing homelessness and the effects of the encampments on city parks, green space and neighborhoods continued to garner attention, both the city and the county committed to addressing chronic homelessness. The city and county commissions adopted a joint resolution committing both governments to collaborate on strategies to address homelessness. Their recent efforts include the Built for Zero initiative, which aims to improve support services for those experiencing homelessness and has an ultimate goal of ending chronic homelessness.

Owens has told the City Commission that these initiatives position the community to pursue unprecedented federal and state funding to address homelessness — funding made possible by pandemic relief legislation and the work of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness. He said that partnerships with social service organizations would be key, but that the city was also organizing itself to be an effective partner in housing security, homelessness and affordable housing.

“We’re excited to be really organizing so that we can be a force of good in these important areas related to people’s lives in our community,” Owens said.

The new division would fall under the Planning and Development Services Department and would incorporate the department’s existing community development division, which currently concentrates on affordable housing and federally funded homeowner and neighborhood assistance programs. Under the proposal, the division would continue to handle those programs, but it would also expand to cover issues related to homelessness. Three positions within the division would focus on homelessness: a homeless coordinator and two homeless project specialists.

In addition to the $1.14 million for service contracts related to homeless outreach, emergency sheltering, and rapid rehousing, the recommended budget calls for allocating $358,000 of general fund money to in-house staff and overhead for the division. The division would house $1.53 million of existing community development funding and $1.66 million of existing funding for the city’s affordable housing trust fund. The division would also receive a $93,000 state grant for the coordination of projects and programs, bringing the grand total of funding allocated to the division to $4.78 million.

Because of the grant funds, Assistant City Manager Brandon McGuire said the city would be working with the behavioral health division of the Kansas Department for Aging and Disability Services to develop mutual goals that would inform the specific duties of the new housing coordinator position. As Douglas County continues to build out and staff its behavioral health campus, McGuire said the city would also be coordinating with the county regarding the position. He said the city expected there would be grant funding for the position for two or three years.

Regarding the project specialist positions, McGuire said there would be a twofold approach.

One of the specialists would be funded by the reclassification of the two vacant police patrol positions and would likely work with an outside agency to better handle the calls the city gets related to homelessness.

Because many encampments are located on city property along the Kansas River, in Naismith Valley Park and in other city parks and green spaces, McGuire said people often call the city when there are concerns with the encampments and the behaviors of those living there. He said concerns have included fires, trash and makeshift structures, as well as drug activity and other behavioral issues, and that right now the city is “not really equipped to intervene skillfully in those situations.”

McGuire said the new position, in conjunction with agreements with outside social service agencies, would bring more experience and training to those situations and would also work to get support services for those experiencing homelessness. Currently, he said many of those calls end up being handled by the police department, which he said is not the best situation for those experiencing homelessness or for the officers.

“Right now, we are not built for that as an organization, and we don’t have the vendor-level support to be responsive,” McGuire said.

McGuire said the other project specialist would be an existing parks and recreation employee. He noted that the Parks and Recreation Department, which helped run a camp for people experiencing homelessness and a temporary winter shelter, has stepped up to address the needs of people experiencing homelessness in the past year. He said because of the encampments, parks staffers frequently encounter people experiencing homelessness as part of their regular duties, and the new position would work to connect those people to assistance.

Reallocation of outside services funding

In years past, the city has allocated dollars to local service agencies — from both the general fund and the special alcohol fund — using an open grant process that did not call for the agencies to meet specific requirements. The agencies that have received those funds have been many and varied over the years, and how those grants were distributed could sometimes be one of the more contentious aspects of the city’s budget process.

Instead of making specific decisions about how that pool of money will be divided as part of the commission’s budget deliberations, the recommended budget only proposes the overall dollar amount that should be allocated to social services and the new structure for distributing those funds specifically to address homelessness as part of the new Housing Initiatives division. If approved, the specific funding decisions would not be made until later in the year as part of the request for proposals process.

Some organizations that have received this “outside agency” funding in the past will be able to make the case that their organizations directly or indirectly help address or prevent homelessness; others, however, might struggle to do so. Agencies that have received funding in recent years include Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center, the Boys & Girls Club of Lawrence, DCCCA, Van Go Inc., Just Food, Heartland Community Health Center and Big Brothers Big Sisters, among several others, according to the city’s website. This year, agencies requested a total of about $2.2 million in city funding, and the city awarded $1.44 million. The recommended allocation of about $1.14 million for 2022 is about $300,000 less than this year’s allocation.

The Boys & Girls Club, which operates in partnership with the school district, received about $170,000 in city funding this year. Club spokesperson Alissa Bourneuf said in an email to the Journal-World that the proposed change to how city funding is decided could affect the organization quite a bit, but she also acknowledged the crisis the city was facing.

“Losing resources impedes our ability to serve more youth, increase quality and improve outcomes,” Bourneuf said. “We realize the City of Lawrence gets many requests, and all of our community partners and fellow nonprofits are worthy of receiving funding.”

Bourneuf went on to say that the club added a lot of value to the community and would always advocate for the youth it served, but that it also understood that the housing crisis was growing. She said the staff and board would continue to work closely with city officials and other nonprofits to ensure that all entities were working together to better the community.

Regarding the organizations that might no longer receive city funding under the new proposal, Owens said that there are important services that are provided throughout the community that aren’t expected to be delivered by Lawrence’s municipal government. He said the city would be working strategically to figure out what gets the most effective results on the goals outlined in the city’s strategic plan, which was developed with input from residents.

Owens said the previous method allocated social service funding “somewhat arbitrarily” without defining what the city was specifically trying to accomplish. Instead, Owens said the new method defined measurable outcomes under the strategic plan and refocused the city’s efforts and its partnerships with outside agencies on addressing issues related to homelessness and housing.

“This is a very deliberate and intentional approach to doing really important work that we’ve proactively defined as a community,” Owens said.

The city’s budget process has only just begun, and the proposal for the new division, the allocation process for outside agency funding and the overall amount of funding for social services has yet to be discussed in detail by the commission. McGuire said once the commission’s position on the proposal became clear, the city would be communicating directly with agencies to let them know what the city’s goals were and how the new process would work.

Both Owens and McGuire also noted that Douglas County has dedicated additional funding to social services as part of its proposed 2022 budget, and that there are additional dollars that will be available through new federal relief funding. McGuire also noted the county’s ongoing efforts on the Behavioral Health Campus, which he said was a key component of community efforts to eliminate chronic homelessness.

“Ours is only one piece of a much broader system, and we are just focusing on three elements of that system,” McGuire said.

Upcoming budget process

The recommended budget is $383.87 million across all funds. In addition to the new Housing Initiatives division, it includes more than $117 million in infrastructure and maintenance funding; $5 million total in pay raises for both union on non-union employees; and eight new staff positions, four of which are funded at least initially by federal or state grants. The budget also begins to allocate the approximately $19 million in federal coronavirus relief the city will receive from the American Rescue Plan Act.

Though the recommended budget does not propose an increase in the city’s property tax rate, it does call for increases in all three city utility rates. Utility rates have been increasing at an average of about 7.5% annually since 2015, with the average bill now more than $100 per month. The budget assumes a 2.5% increase in assessed property values, meaning that though the city’s property tax wouldn’t increase under the recommended budget, those whose property values increased would pay more than they did last year.

The city’s budget memo and presentation can be viewed on the city’s website, lawrenceks.org.

This budget is the first one to incorporate the city’s new strategic plan and the priorities set forth by the community as part of the plan’s creation. An overview of the strategic plan is also available on the city’s website.

Lawrence city commissioners began discussion of the 2022 recommended budget on July 13, and coming weeks will determine what changes they might make. Residents can provide a statement on the recommended budget through the Lawrence Listens platform on the city’s website, lawrenceks.org/listens/surveys. Comments must be received by midnight on Aug. 24.

The commission will further discuss the budget as part of its meeting Tuesday. The city’s budget hearing is scheduled for Aug. 31.

Correction: A previous version of this article misstated the total amount allocated toward employee raises.

COMMENTS

Welcome to the new LJWorld.com. Our old commenting system has been replaced with Facebook Comments. There is no longer a separate username and password login step. If you are already signed into Facebook within your browser, you will be able to comment. If you do not have a Facebook account and do not wish to create one, you will not be able to comment on stories.