‘A Place for Everyone’ homelessness plan is about more than just housing; it’s also about solving ‘upstream’ problems

photo by: File photos

Lawrence City Hall, 6 E. Sixth St., and the Douglas County Courthouse, 1100 Massachusetts St.

“A Place for Everyone.” That’s the name of the new city and county plan to end chronic homelessness, so you might expect it to be focused on places — affordable and supportive housing for people to live in.

And that’s certainly a part of it. One of the plan’s five “goal areas” calls for more than $218 million in spending on affordable housing over five years.

But if you ask the architects of the plan, the part about “everyone” is just as important as the part about “places.” Who is “everyone,” and what are the challenges that prevent them from finding stable, affordable housing in the first place?

To address this, the plan calls for about $45,000 in spending on equity and inclusion initiatives — things as diverse as providing training, listening to homeless residents’ concerns and taking away some barriers that minority residents commonly face when trying to find housing.

All of that has by far the lowest estimated cost of any of the four goal areas in the plan that predict any spending. But some of those who worked on the plan say it might have the greatest impact.

Mariel Ferreiro, a community organizer with Lawrence Mutual Aid Network and Sanctuary Alliance, said you can sum it up in a quote from the famed South African bishop and apartheid opponent Desmond Tutu:

“There comes a point where we need to stop just pulling people out of the river. We need to go upstream and find out why they’re falling in.”

photo by: Contributed

Mariel Ferreiro

• • •

When you look at the plan, you’ll see five goal areas: affordable housing, supportive housing, systems, equity and inclusion, and emergency services and shelter. Many of the “upstream” initiatives that Ferreiro is talking about fall under the “equity and inclusion” label, and they’re broader than what many people think of as “equity” work.

Some of the $45,000 in this section would go directly toward helping people experiencing homelessness in ways other than housing — stipends, food, resources and training for people with lived experience with homelessness. Other initiatives are focused on educating the community or service providers, such as a local equity symposium or training that could be hosted every other year.

Still others would organize ongoing, frequent community engagement sessions for people experiencing homelessness, or support changes to zoning policies that would make the community more inclusive and integrated.

But what all of these equity and inclusion solutions have in common is that they don’t directly try to create or find housing for people. Instead, Lacee Roe, director of community engagement at the Lawrence Community Shelter, said they are about “curbing the tide of homelessness and implementing more preventative strategies” that will reduce homelessness in the future.

In other words, they’re meant to be proactive, not reactive.

“It’s an idea of what is the root of the issue, right?” Ferreiro said. “And for me, it’s what are the systems that are the causation of this problem, or this thing we’re viewing as either an inequity or just a failure on support systems for the community? We have to look at what the source is of the issue, while in tandem helping people with their very real day-to-day problems.”

• • •

For people of color in Douglas County, Roe and Ferreiro said, the root of some of those issues might be a history of racial disparities and discrimination.

The two advocates spoke with the Journal-World in more detail about several of the plan’s equity and inclusion strategies, and one of them would be researching and developing a plan for a local reparation program to address racial disparities in the county.

In other cities and states, the debates over reparations for slavery, racial discrimination and other past injustices have often focused on monetary payments to marginalized groups. But in the “A Place for Everyone” plan, the term is used to mean something a bit different and more general: making policy changes that will lead to more equitable housing for people of color.

Some of the work has already started, Ferreiro said. She said some of the people who worked on the plan have started a “restorative housing group” that has been researching local history and determining whether people of color in Douglas County historically have had a harder time owning housing and creating “generational wealth.” That term refers to things like property and other assets that are passed from one generation to the next.

The group found that earlier in its history, Lawrence had racial housing covenants that prevented Black residents from obtaining housing in certain areas of town, Ferreiro said. She said such covenants can cause a continuous cycle of poverty across generations and, in turn, could be among the root causes of an individual’s homelessness today.

“I think that’s the big connection for us,” Ferreiro said. “What our intention is with that group, right now, (is) we’re definitely in the research phase of looking back at those covenants and starting to map where people are living now in comparison, to see if we can draw those lines (and say) ‘Yes, this has affected where people live and if people are able to own homes.'”

Once the research is done, Ferreiro said the next goal would be to launch a restorative housing program aimed at reducing the barriers to Black homeownership that the group found.

Ferreiro said the need for these programs is clear. The county’s Homelessness Needs Assessment, which was released in 2022, showed that Black and Indigenous people in the county experience homelessness at significantly higher rates than their white counterparts.

“… It’s very apparent that there is disparity (between racial categories) of folks experiencing homelessness,” Ferreiro said. “We see that comparative to our population in Douglas County, folks that are Black, Indigenous or people of color are experiencing homelessness at a higher rate, and a lot of that has to do with these systemic issues — starting with how people are able to not only afford housing but become owners of housing.”

Educating the community about that work is equally important, she said, because there is sometimes a misconception that making reparations is equivalent to taking “pieces of the pie” away from some people and giving them to others. Ferreiro and Roe said that’s not what the plan intends to do — rather, they said, it’s about expanding resources to more people and reckoning with the community’s history.

“Restorative housing is one of our tools for us to begin closing that gap that we see with racial disparities and help us achieve the equity outcomes that we want,” Roe said. “And if we ever want to reduce these disparities, we have to be very intentional in our solutions.”

• • •

Education is important for other strategies in the equity and inclusion goal area, too, like the every-other-year equity symposium. But in this case, the education isn’t aimed at the broader community — instead, it’s to get service providers organized and coordinated.

“The goal is really to get everyone on the same page between our service providers and other audiences that we might also include for a symposium, and making sure that we have the same information, the same resources, so that we can collaborate better,” Roe said.

photo by: Contributed

Lacee Roe

Like the racial equity work, some of this has already been happening in Douglas County. Just last month, housing-related local social service agencies were working together to develop a shared framework for supportive housing as part of a training from the Corporation for Supportive Housing.

Giving everyone the same training on how to navigate these issues, Roe said, can help reduce many kinds of discrimination, “micro-aggressions” and unconscious biases that she said are still prevalent in the social service systems.

For example, Roe said providers could all receive training on “intersectionality,” the complex ways in which multiple forms of discrimination — like racism and sexism, for example — combine and interact. A person of color who is homeless has a different set of challenges than a white person who is homeless, for instance.

Roe said people with disabilities often are more likely to deal with poverty and homelessness. And among youths, Roe said those who identify as LGBTQ+ often display the highest rates of homelessness.

Simply recognizing and being aware of how those issues intersect, Roe said, can create a foundation for making better connections and building more trust.

“The conversation of diversity, equity and inclusion — view it as an on-ramp,” Ferreiro said. “The community’s going to come in at different levels. They may understand something like intersectionality immediately, (or) it may take them a little bit more to understand how those topics intersect. What we want to do, especially in this group in the space of education, is understand people’s access points to this on-ramp of talking about these topics and how they intersect.”

–This story is part of a series focused on “A Place for Everyone,” the City of Lawrence and Douglas County’s joint plan to eliminate chronic homelessness. Future stories in this series will focus on other branches of the plan dedicated to affordable, supportive and emergency housing, as well as systems.


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