Douglas County leaders approve study that aims to help community end chronic homelessness

photo by: Douglas County

Douglas County commissioners, staff and those that will be involved in a homeless needs assessment discuss the study as part of the commission's meeting Sept. 8, 2021.

Douglas County leaders have approved a study that aims to identify what services, programs and support are needed for the community to achieve its goal of eliminating chronic homelessness.

As part of its meeting Wednesday, the Douglas County Commission voted 2-0, with Commission Chair Shannon Portillo abstaining, to approve a $71,525 agreement with the University of Kansas Center for Research to perform a homeless needs assessment for the county. The county will pay for the study using pandemic relief funding from the American Rescue Plan Act.

Assistant County Administrator Jill Jolicoeur told the commission that the study would comprehensively assess what programs and services are available in the community for those experiencing or at risk for homelessness, who is being helped by those resources and who is not being helped. She said that information was important to know as the county prepared to begin distributing the $23 million it will receive from the American Rescue Plan Act over the next two years.

“(The assessment will) give the county and the city and our stakeholders a fuller perspective on what is needed to invest in the short and the long term and how we can use those federal dollars and ongoing county support more strategically,” Jolicoeur said.

For several weeks, the county and city have been meeting with a group of housing and homelessness service providers and advocates to develop plans to address homelessness and housing insecurity in the community, and those partners recommended the scope of the study, according to a memo to the commission. The partners include Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center, Catholic Charities, DCCCA, Family Promise, Kansas Statewide Homeless Coalition, Habitat for Humanity, Justice Matters, the Lawrence Community Shelter, Tenants to Homeowners, and the Willow Domestic Violence Center.

Ultimately, Jolicoeur said the study aimed to identify short- and long-term strategies for how federal dollars could be used to reach the community’s goal of ending chronic homelessness by 2023 and developing a housing-first community service model, which focuses on quickly housing people and providing the support they need to remain housed. As part of the seven-phase study, the KU Center for Research, in conjunction with the KU Center for Public Partnerships, will work with various social service agencies and clients of those agencies, including those experiencing homelessness, to gather quantitative and qualitative information to inform public and private investments in community programs and infrastructure, according to the memo.

Jolicoeur said that in order to move quickly on the proposal and the assessment, the county waived its purchasing procedures. Typically, local governments put out a request for proposals, evaluate those the responses, then select an agency to perform a study or other work based on the evaluation and cost proposed.

Commissioner Patrick Kelly asked why the county saw a need to move so quickly and how the county decided on the KU Center for Research.

Jolicoeur said there continued to be a sense of urgency among the county’s partners when it came to addressing homelessness, and the sooner the community had a sense of what its needs were and planned for addressing them, the better position it would be in to get as much federal funding as possible. She said the county and its partners searched for similar studies and reviewed one that the KU Center for Research recently completed for the Kansas City metro area.

County Administrator Sarah Plinsky agreed with the sense of urgency, saying that in addition to American Rescue Plan Act funds, other federal funding is already available or will soon become available.

“There is a strong sense of urgency that we need to quickly determine what our gaps are in our system, which is what the needs assessment will help us do,” Plinsky said.

Commissioners agreed with the urgency and the need for the assessment. Portillo said she was abstaining from the vote because her husband works for the KU Center for Public Partnerships, but that he would not be involved in the project for the county.

Commission Vice Chair Shannon Reid, who has a background working in social service, said engagement of those who have experienced homelessness would be key, as would making sure those participants were compensated for their time. Reid said the pandemic had escalated the homelessness and housing crisis in many ways, and she appreciated that it was a pressing issue in the community.

“I think that we could see potential escalation of further crisis, and I believe that this is an action and an important intentional step in figuring out how to mitigate that as best we can,” Reid said.

• In other business Wednesday, the commission was also scheduled to consider a $26,000 supportive housing needs assessment with the Corporation for Supportive Housing, but that proposal was not ready and was deferred to a future meeting.

• The commission approved a $1.3 million pre-funding agreement for the startup of the county’s new Crisis and Recovery Center, which will open next year. The commission has previously discussed the agreement, which covers startup costs for staffing and operations for the center. Once complete, the center will be part of the behavioral health campus, which is funded by a quarter-cent sales tax that Douglas County voters approved in 2018.

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