City and county leaders call for more collaboration to address homelessness, other community issues

photo by: Rochelle Valverde

Electrical connections for tents at the campsite for homeless people in northern Lawrence are pictured on Nov. 4, 2020.

At a joint meeting Monday, elected city and county leaders said that the coronavirus pandemic made both the problem of homelessness and the need for local governments to work together to address it more clear.

The pandemic led to various organizations working to house people quickly or shelter them temporarily in noncongregate settings, such as hotels. City Commissioner Lisa Larsen said that she had noticed, especially this winter, a lot of organizations doing good work to try to address homelessness, but a certain collaborative element seemed lacking.

“It just seems like there is no central message, there’s no central program that is directing how we are trying to address homelessness,” Larsen said.

As the city and county both provide funding to organizations that work to address homelessness, Monday’s conversation was part of a wider discussion about each local government’s priorities and the various agreements between the city and county to provide certain services or fund certain agencies.

Vice Mayor Courtney Shipley said that not only did that collaboration need to occur, but that it needed to be done with urgency. Shipley said that she thought there was frustration in the public about the level of discussion versus the level of action, and that the clock is already ticking before next winter.

“The frustration is still out there in the public that we don’t have a plan,” Shipley said.

County Commission Vice Chair Shannon Reid said the pandemic intensified the crisis of homelessness and that people and organizations in the community have come forward to try to fill the gaps. She said she hoped the county would continue progress on its “Built for Zero” strategy, which aims for a systemwide approach that responds to individual needs, and that forthcoming federal pandemic aid for homelessness would help support sustainable programs that go beyond crisis intervention.

“I’m really hopeful about the moment in time that we’re in,” Reid said.

Mayor Brad Finkeldei agreed that the pandemic and the forthcoming federal funding to help address homelessness, provided through the recently approved American Rescue Plan, has put the community in a unique position to work together to address the issue.

Leaders agreed that they would like to schedule another joint meeting to continue the conversation about homelessness, and that they would like to see more collaboration overall, especially on the more complex issues where the city and the county both play a role. Issues mentioned included social justice, economic development and emerging conversations about the availability of early-childhood education, among other issues.

As part of the meeting, City Manager Craig Owens and County Administrator Sarah Plinsky said they have been going over the approximately 25 active agreements between the two governments, and said they would soon be ready to bring forward some of those agreements for review. Leaders agreed that while some agreements, such as the one to provide emergency dispatch service, are more technical, others, such as the ones that relate to the provision of social services, were more likely to need to adapt over the years. Leaders agreed they would like to set regular review schedules for all of the agreements as well as put in place some type of evaluation process to assess the effectiveness of the programs or services.

Larsen said as each agreement is reviewed, her hope is that the city and county can collaborate and say who is going to be handling which programs, including details about how those programs are financially supported. Plinsky said multiple agreements could be consolidated into one agreement and that she thought it was achievable to get the agreements reviewed, to put them in a consistent format, and to establish regular reviews and oversight.


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