To build emergency shelter capacity, ‘A Place For Everyone’ plan calls for a dedicated shelter for families

photo by: File photos

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

For the past year and beyond, adding emergency shelter capacity has been an unavoidable topic in Lawrence.

Some key moves have advanced that goal: the Lawrence Community Shelter’s shift to a shared governance model with the City of Lawrence and Douglas County, followed a few months later by a nearly tenfold increase in city funding support and the hiring of Executive Director James Chiselom. The shelter has since begun operating The Village, the community of 64-square-foot Pallet cabins for people experiencing homelessness at 256 N. Michigan St., which as of the past week was home to 49 residents.

City officials say those actions have helped to create an overall capacity of 225 emergency shelter beds — 175 at LCS and 50 at The Village.

But there’s still more work ahead to meet the need for emergency shelter in Douglas County, according to the city’s director of homeless solutions, Misty Bosch-Hastings. That’s reflected in “A Place for Everyone,” the city and county joint plan to eliminate chronic homelessness, which calls for a nearly $21 million investment in emergency services and shelter over the next five years.

Much of that total is already accounted for through the city’s and county’s annual budgetary contributions to LCS, which add up to $2,973,696 per year and nearly $15 million over that five-year span. But there are still gaps — specifically in dedicated shelter options for women and families — left to be filled.

Last week, the Journal-World spoke with Bosch-Hastings about what’s called for in the emergency services and shelter section of “A Place for Everyone.” It’s one of five goal areas in the plan, along with equity and inclusion, affordable housing, supportive housing and systems.

photo by: Kansas Legislature screenshot

Misty Bosch-Hastings, Director of Homeless Solutions for the City of Lawrence, answers questions from lawmakers during a Kansas House Committee on Welfare Reform meeting at the Capitol on Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2024.

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Addressing the gap in shelter services for women and families is the first bullet point on the list of emergency services and shelter priorities in “A Place for Everyone.” The plan calls for providing immediate access to up to 65 low-barrier emergency shelter beds for women and families by 2027.

That’s a resource that doesn’t currently exist in the community, Bosch-Hastings told the Journal-World.

“The thing that I really want the community to know is that we do not have emergency shelter for families with children,” Bosch-Hastings said. “People think that because we have Family Promise that we do, and it’s not accurate. They do not provide emergency shelter.”

Currently, it is true that Family Promise doesn’t operate a permanent shelter facility. Instead, that nonprofit has for 15 years collaborated with various churches to house homeless families for one week at a time, and it does offer 30-day shelter programs in which families meet with a case manager at least once a week to work toward obtaining employment and permanent housing. But the organization earlier this year earned city approval to convert a longtime day care facility at 200 Mount Hope Court into a permanent shelter that will eventually be able to house up to six homeless families at any given time.

Bosch-Hastings said the city’s only other option is to house families in hotel rooms, which she said is the case for three or four families right now. She said the city and county are actively searching for a location for a family shelter, a process that’s far enough along that she’s been meeting with zoning staff about one property in particular to determine whether it will be a good fit.

Wherever the shelter ends up being located, Bosch-Hastings said it could be modeled off of Manhattan Emergency Shelter Inc., which operates a transitional shelter that serves homeless families with and without children. She said the facility has a shared kitchen and operates similarly to The Village, in that the emergency shelter is packaged with supports intended to help clients work toward finding permanent affordable housing.

The family shelter piece of the plan accounts for an estimated $3.85 million in spending through the next five years, and Bosch-Hastings said at least one possible source for that funding could be a bank in nearby Shawnee County.

Topeka is home to one of 11 regional branches in the Federal Home Loan Bank System, a government-sponsored enterprise to support mortgage lending and related community investment. The Topeka branch has an affordable housing grant program that in 2023 awarded more than $17 million to 22 projects across Kansas, Colorado, Nebraska and Oklahoma. Projects in Wichita, Kansas City, Overland Park and Paola were among those receiving funds.

“I’m looking at a grant for that, and that grant is $1.5 million a year over three years,” Bosch-Hastings said. “That would be the perfect amount of operating expenses. Right now, it’s looking like we could be covered for the next three years, if everything goes to plan. If I could make that happen without tax dollars, it’s going to be amazing.”

Bosch-Hastings said she also plans to work with Chiselom, the LCS director, to identify further state and federal grant opportunities that will mean less reliance on local tax dollars.

Another facility called for in “A Place for Everyone” is a community outreach and day center that would provide programming and services for unhoused people, including access to basic hygiene like bathrooms, showers and laundry facilities. Though the plan says it’s a goal to establish the resource by 2027, there isn’t a budget line for a day center reflected in the estimated funding breakdown provided to the Journal-World.

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Some goals in this area of the plan aren’t related to new buildings as much as they are to people and programs.

For example, one goal the plan aims to achieve by 2027 is reducing the county’s annual point-in-time count of unsheltered individuals by 50%; in 2023, it was 95. An “unsheltered” individual, as defined in the annual count mandated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, is someone who’s been living outdoors in a place HUD describes as “not meant for human habitation,” like on the streets or in an abandoned building.

As the Journal-World has reported, the count is an imperfect tool for generating an accurate number of precisely how many people make up the local unhoused population, because it hinges on participation in a voluntary survey and only collects information about respondents’ circumstances on one night in January.

It also takes a while before the results of the count are shared publicly. This year’s count took place in late January, but it’s likely the tally won’t be known for a few more months. Last year’s numbers weren’t shared with the city until August and were not released publicly until October.

Bosch-Hastings said there’s a simple way to reduce the count of unsheltered individuals.

“The way that we accomplish that goal is creating bed space,” Bosch-Hastings said. “When I got here, there were 40 beds of emergency shelter available at LCS, and now we’re at 175, with 25 more coming online, I hope, by this summer. We’re working through this process and it’s going well.”

But simply adding more beds isn’t the only strategy, Bosch-Hastings said. The plan also calls for establishing a “rapid rehousing program,” a fund that moves people from homelessness to housing predominantly by providing money to cover a housing deposit and a few months of rent on a case-by-case basis.

Bosch-Hastings said she ran a similar program in Topeka on a $500,000 annual budget, which gives her an idea of how to structure the program here. She said it would likely be housed at the Lawrence Community Shelter, using case managers who could work with program clients for up to a year.

There’s also the multidisciplinary outreach team she’s been working to launch, which is another goal outlined in “A Place for Everyone.” Up until now, she said most street outreach has gone through the Homeless Outreach Team at Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center, which simultaneously is responsible for providing clients with case management.

Establishing the multidisciplinary team eliminates a capacity issue, Bosch-Hastings said, freeing up Bert Nash staff to focus on case management in support of the new outreach team. It also frees up some capacity for advocates to walk alongside individuals longer in finding the resources they need to exit chronic homelessness, she said.

“This is a community effort — it really is a community effort, and it needs to be all hands on deck,” Bosch-Hastings said.

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There are already examples of outreach efforts that bring much-needed services directly to homeless people in Lawrence.

Since February, Lawrence-Douglas County Public Health has partnered with LCS to provide basic health services once a month on-site at the shelter using the LDCPH Mobile Clinic. At the monthly clinic visit referred to as “Wellness Wednesday,” shelter residents are able to get any service available at the health department’s office at 200 Maine St., from sexually transmitted infection testing and treatment to physical exams and immunizations.

When the partnership was first announced, the health department also brought in a community health worker with Heartland Community Health Center to help shelter residents connect with other resources. But leaders at LDCPH told the Journal-World Friday that the event has quickly evolved from its initial format to include partnerships with a much wider range of providers — Bert Nash, the Kansas Department of Health and Environment and Heartland RADAC.

Christine Ebert, the health department’s director of clinic services, told the Journal-World that LDCPH sees itself as “chief health strategist” in that work. Ebert said that’s the goal of public health in any community — to make sure that the correct stakeholders are involved and to close health care gaps.

LDCPH Executive Director Jonathan Smith said the idea is to make it easier for vulnerable populations to receive the same services that they otherwise might not be able to easily access.

photo by: Austin Hornbostel/Journal-World

Jonathan Smith, the executive director of Lawrence-Douglas County Public Health, is pictured with the health department’s mobile clinic on Friday, April 26, 2024.

“That’s why (the goal) was let’s go to the community shelter, let’s hope that this will be — and it already has proven to be — a spark in the community that sparks collaboration between health care organizations, and even organizations who don’t provide health care because it’s not just about physical health, it’s also about mental health, too,” Smith told the Journal-World Friday.

That idea fits directly into the goals of “A Place for Everyone,” Smith said, and it contributes to a positive domino effect for the community as a whole — not just the chronically homeless.

One example Smith gave was that clinics like these can reduce the volume of unnecessary visits to hospital emergency rooms, in turn offering the hospital some relief from financial strain due to uncompensated care — health care or services that don’t get reimbursed, often when a patient doesn’t have insurance and can’t afford to pay for the cost of the care.

The health department has big goals for “Wellness Wednesday,” inspired in part by a visit to the Topeka Rescue Mission. That agency has a similar mobile health unit as a resource, but also provides clients with mobile showers, a food truck and a mobile veterinarian truck. Smith said there’s an open invitation to any other partners who want to help provide services each month; the next event will take place May 29.

photo by: Lawrence-Douglas County Public Health

Lawrence-Douglas County Public Health’s mobile clinic parks at the Lawrence Community Shelter as part of a recent “Wellness Wednesday” event.

“I think that our goal, a little bit, is that ‘Wellness Wednesday’ is the genesis of something much bigger and more permanent, using this to build off of, showing that it works, showing that this model can work and that stakeholders can come together and collaborate and we can deliver these services in a way that feels good for everyone,” Ebert added. “At least that’s my hope — that this can eventually be something much bigger and much more sustainable, and it has a permanent home and is built into the fabric of the community.”

-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. The last story in this series will focus on the branch of the plan dedicated to systems.

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