Nonprofit says that despite millions in funding for supportive housing, Douglas County agencies remain unclear on shared goals
photo by: Douglas County Commission screenshot
Douglas County commissioners have budgeted millions of dollars for Lawrence’s supportive housing needs, but a report they commissioned from a housing nonprofit says the agencies receiving that money often are unclear on what supportive housing really entails.
“Supportive housing” typically refers to specialized housing designed to help people exiting homelessness, or others who have particular challenges in finding and keeping housing. But The Corporation for Supportive Housing, in a recent report commissioned by the county, said that among Douglas County’s local providers “there was not a shared definition of supportive housing or housing-based case management,” and in some cases “people were unclear as to what it meant at all.”
CSH interviewed more than a dozen agencies for its recent report, which is coming out at a time when the county is devoting more funding to supportive housing. That means it’s critical that everyone is working together toward a common purpose, according to the director of one of the supportive housing providers that CSH interviewed.
“Collaboratively in our community, it will be helpful if we say that ‘supportive housing has these minimum components,'” said Dana Ortiz, executive director of Family Promise of Lawrence. “So if you’re working at a supportive housing program, this is what it looks like minimally.”
Other problems can arise when not everyone is on the same page. For instance, Ortiz said the lack of a definition makes it harder to tell how much supportive housing there is. And at a recent County Commission work session, one county staff leader said the county and its partner agencies may not always have the same expectations for case management services for people in supportive housing situations.
One thing that is clear to county leaders is that spending for supportive housing is set to grow next year, if not sooner. Commissioners set aside $2 million in the county’s 2024 budget for a 24-unit supportive housing complex to be operated by Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center, and commissioners recently released $427,000 of those funds to be used early.
The county has steadily poured resources into social service programs that get to the heart of supportive housing, Commission Chair Patrick Kelly said at the work session, “and we’ve got to find a way to show a return on that.”
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According to CSH, Lawrence and Douglas County need hundreds of units of supportive housing. Specifically, as the Journal-World previously reported, an earlier study by CSH found that the city had a need for nearly 400 supportive housing units.
But although county leaders and nonprofit agencies have devoted some resources to the issue, it’s often difficult to tell just how much progress has been made.
It’s not clear how many units of supportive housing exist in Lawrence, although Ortiz told the Journal-World it’s “a tiny number.” She said that the lack of a countywide definition hinders the count, because the number “depends on how people define supportive housing.”
Part of the issue, she said, is that supportive housing isn’t necessarily the only thing these units are used for.
“Family Promise has 10 units that could potentially be used for that,” Ortiz said. “But at any given point, those units might be used for shelter or temporary housing instead of supportive housing.”
Despite the difficulties in obtaining clear information, Assistant County Administrator Jill Jolicoeur told the Journal-World that some progress was being made.
“There is supportive housing happening in the community,” she said. “We just don’t have enough of it.”
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Aside from the housing units themselves, there are problems with providing the “supportive” aspect of supportive housing — which Jolicoeur said could include things like transportation to medical appointments and guidance in areas such as budgeting and basic household skills.
At the work session on Sept. 6, Terri Power, an associate director with CSH, told commissioners that supportive housing blends rental assistance with other basic services for the “hardest to serve” homeless demographic, and that “you can’t have one without the other.” She also told commissioners that among the local agencies, there was “no agreed-upon best practice for how to keep people in housing once they are housed.”
“It’s important that we think about not just housing people, but maintaining that housing,” she said.
That’s been easier said than done in Douglas County so far.
For starters, Jolicoeur told the commission at the work session that “We have virtually no rent assistance available for folks exiting homelessness.” The reason is that such aid “usually comes with federally funded programs, and we don’t have a lot of those.”
And while Power said it was crucial to partner with private landlords to create supportive housing programs, Jolicoeur told the Journal-World that “At the community level, we really struggle to find landlords that would be willing to work with us.”
Case management for supportive housing is another area of weakness. According to the CSH report, local agencies are under capacity in that area.
Ortiz confirmed that case managers are difficult to hire and retain. She said that Lawrence Family Promise has room for three in its budget, but only employs two; one of the agency’s executives does double duty as a case manager.
“We’re really down on capacity,” she said. “We need a couple more.”
Case management, Jolicoeur told commissioners at the work session, is another area where different expectations could be a problem. She said the establishment of a “supportive housing case management program based on evidence-based practices” is a goal of the county’s, but that there is no “shared agreement on what that looks like in this community.”
Citing a 2022 “needs assessment” study done by the University of Kansas Center for Research, she said it was clear that effective case management of some kind would be necessary to keep people housed.
“We know from the needs assessment that there is a cycle of folks being housed and losing their housing,” she said. “And that cycle only gets interrupted if you have a solid foundation of case management, and we don’t have that where it’s consistent throughout the continuum.”
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To address the concerns that CSH raised, Power recommended that the county and the local agencies hold two-day training sessions to get everyone on the same page.
Power said that “the day one goal” of the training “would be to begin to build the trust around the work group,” and that it would help with the development of a shared vision for how the “spectrum or continuum of supportive housing could take shape in the community.” She said the training should also provide the group with a broad overview of supportive, transitional and recovery housing models.
Jolicoeur told the Journal-World that the county does intend to hold such a training program, and that the goal is to have it scheduled by the first quarter of 2024. She said the process could be a challenge “because there are so many people with so many divergent needs.”
As the Journal-World previously reported, the commission authorized nearly $100,000 for CSH and KU to conduct their studies in 2022, and a county spokesperson said CSH received an additional $10,000 for the most recent study. CSH interviewed the following agencies for its report in addition to Family Promise: DCCCA, the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office re-entry team, the Ballard Center, the Housing Stabilization Collaborative, the Lawrence-Douglas County Housing Authority, the Lawrence Community Shelter, Artists Helping the Homeless, Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center, the Willow Domestic Violence Center, Tenants to Homeowners, Kansas City Continuum of Care and Friends of Recovery for Oxford House.