City leaders to hear update on homelessness efforts, including increased staffing and potential ‘merger’ with Lawrence Community Shelter

photo by: Rochelle Valverde/Journal-World

Lawrence City Hall, 6 E. Sixth St., is pictured on Jan. 31, 2023.

City leaders will soon get an update on efforts to address homelessness, including adding staff to the city-run campsite, an update on the timeframe for a new campsite with modular homes, and efforts toward more coordination — including potentially a “full merger” — with the Lawrence Community Shelter.

The Lawrence City Commission will get an update on the city’s efforts to address homelessness as part of the city manager’s report at the end of the commission’s meeting on Tuesday. The report will cover multiple aspects of the city’s efforts to address homelessness, as well as efforts by local social service agencies.

“The challenges contributing to creating chronic homelessness are complex and interconnected,” City Manager Craig Owens states in the report. “The solutions therefore must be coordinated among the service providers, city, county and state agencies, to do the most good with existing resources and recognize and take responsibility for gaps.”

The full report is included in the commission’s agenda materials, with a summary of the topics covered in the report as follows:

City-run campsite and emergency shelter: The city is currently managing a campsite in North Lawrence and an overnight emergency shelter at the downtown Community Building for the winter season. The report states that the city has identified “service gaps” at the campsite and is recruiting additional employees to provide a more consistent staff presence at the campsite. The report states that the additional employees (a specific number is not provided) will help with clarity and consistency regarding camp check-in procedures, campsite rules, receiving donations, distributing supplies, providing security for camp residents, assisting camp residents with basic logistical and resource needs, and communication with camp residents. The city has also stepped up its coordination with Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center and other community organizations to ensure case management services are available and being delivered at both the campsite and the emergency winter shelter. Professionally trained staff from Bert Nash are now providing nightly support in addition to their daytime outreach work.

Modular home site: In December, the City Commission approved spending $4.5 million to create a site with modular homes for people experiencing homelessness as part of a larger plan to spend more than $8 million in pandemic relief aid. The report states that soon the commission will receive a contract with the Washington-based company Pallet to provide up to 75 modular shelter homes in a support village setting, and that “in the next few months” the city will begin providing a longer-term camping site and a Pallet shelter village of modular homes. The modular homes include heating and cooling, and the “village” site includes restrooms, laundry, shower and community gathering and support service offices. City staff are currently working to identify a location for the site and plan to have it operational by June. The longer-term camping site and the Pallet shelter village are solutions that the city envisions using for the next three to five years while other more permanent housing solutions, such as affordable rental and home ownership, are developed.

Lawrence Community Shelter: The LCS was for many years the community’s primary provider of emergency shelter, but it significantly reduced its capacity in the summer of 2019 due to budget issues, and amid the COVID-19 pandemic and staffing issues it has continued to operate at a capacity of 50 or fewer people since then. The report states that the city has recently begun discussions to build a much stronger connection between the city and LCS and “formally explore options to leverage the assets and capacity of each organization to the greatest extent.” Over the next six months, city leadership and staff from the two organizations will work to analyze and develop a plan to expand and improve services to more people. The report goes on to state that recent discussion with LCS and other key community partners related to both the clarified role of the city to lead the camping and emergency shelter role and for the city to assume “a much tighter relationship (including potentially full merger)” with LCS has been universally supported as a concept. These partners include LCS, Douglas County, Bert Nash, Heartland Community Health Center, Heartland RADAC, DCCCA, Lawrence Douglas County Housing Authority and Family Promise.

In an email to the Journal-World, LCS Interim Executive Director Melanie Valdez said LCS was excited to engage in discussions with the city over the next six months to strategize how to best address the homelessness crisis in the community. She said addressing homelessness would be a community effort.

“We know we cannot do this alone,” Valdez said. “We need the support of our entire community and all of the resources it has to offer.”

Valdez said the goal is for homelessness to be rare, brief, and one-time, and LCS will continue to work with the city and its community partners to determine the approach that will produce the best results. She said if mergers provide the best solution, they should be considered.

“Our mission is to advance compassionate solutions for people facing homelessness through advocacy, shelter and housing,” Valdez said. “If improved partnerships or mergers are the best way to meet our goals and achieve our mission, then we should keep those open to consideration.”

Affordable Housing: The report states Douglas County is taking the lead on transitional housing and supportive housing, while both local governments are working to address affordable rental housing and affordable home ownership. In addition to recently produced or funded projects, it is expected that nearly 900 units of affordable housing will be produced in the next five years. The report includes a table of nine projects that received funding from the city’s affordable housing trust fund and/or an allocation of the city’s pandemic relief aid.

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


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