City, county leaders looking for answers on how to fund $100M-plus plan to address homelessness

photo by: Shawn Valverde

Assistant Douglas County Administrator Jill Jolicoeur speaks to the Lawrence City Commission and Douglas County Commission during a joint session on Wednesday, Jan. 17, 2024.

How will the City of Lawrence and Douglas County finance the more than $100 million investment their collaborative plan to end homelessness calls for in the next five years?

That was one of a number of questions that city and county leaders had for the key figures behind the “A Place for Everyone” plan, which has been in the works for nearly three years, during a joint session of the Lawrence City Commission and Douglas County Commission Wednesday afternoon at City Hall.

As the Journal-World has reported, the plan calls for a significant investment in the next five years — well over $100 million, much of which would go toward costs associated with constructing and operating permanent affordable housing units.

That’s a “big, scary number,” Assistant Douglas County Administrator Jill Jolicoeur told the group, and commissioners agreed.

“The dollar figure that was put out there is a big ask, and to have that kind of buy-in, we need buy-in from as many people as possible,” Mayor Bart Litttlejohn said.

Jolicoeur said community leaders don’t have all the answers, but they’re committed to developing a sustainable plan by leveraging public and private resources, federal and state grants and other funding opportunities.

One of them could be through the state’s HOME Investment Partnership American Rescue Plan Program; Jolicoeur said Lawrence has been invited to participate in the final round of the grant application process. That would provide capital for up to 30 more affordable housing units, she said, and is an example of one funding source community stakeholders would be looking to take advantage of moving forward.

County Commissioner Shannon Reid said the money’s going to have to come from a variety of sources, and there are at least a couple of ways that local groups have improved at working together to make that happen. For one example, Reid said the city, county and key community partners have gotten better at collaborating to avoid redundancy and maximize their resources. She said the city and county also do a good job at securing state and federal funding.

“It’s easy to focus on a number that, as Jill described earlier, feels ‘big and scary’ — that’s what people react to,” Reid said. “… There’s a lot of factors that are out of our control that we are trying to account for, but it is going to require big investments and it’s going to continue on with some unknowns in front of us.”

But even the significant investment outlined in the plan likely doesn’t reflect the full extent of the community’s need. City of Lawrence Affordable Housing Administrator Lea Roselyn told the joint commission that the 1,500 affordable rental units, 200 affordable homeownership units, 100 accessible units and 500 affordable units for families called for in the plan will likely still be thousands less than that need.

“While those numbers may seem ambitious, it still won’t meet the total need for affordable housing as defined and identified in the 2018 Lawrence housing market analysis,” Roselyn said. “That study showed that at that time in Lawrence alone, there were 5,200 cost-burdened renters who needed accessible and affordable housing. The report demonstrated that there’s a need for 2,000 affordable units for elders, 1,500 new units for people with disabilities that are fully accessible, and 1,300 new units for female, single (heads) of household.”

photo by: Shawn Valverde

Lawrence City Manager Craig Owens, left, and Douglas County Administrator Sarah Plinsky take part in a joint session of the city and county commissions on Wednesday, Jan. 17, 2024.

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Along with the discussion about the overall cost of the plan, the joint commission also had some questions about the community’s point-in-time count, which is conducted annually by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. When HUD conducted the count at the beginning of 2023, it found that there were 351 people who were homeless in Lawrence and Douglas County on a particular night. Leaders working in homelessness prevention have noted that this number likely underestimates the actual count of people experiencing homelessness.

Jolicoeur said there is still a lot of work ahead to determine how that count was conducted, and to ensure a more “accurate reflection of who’s out there” this year. The city’s homeless programs coordinator, Misty Bosch-Hastings, detailed some steps that are being taken to that end for this year’s count, which is slated to take place next Thursday, Jan. 25.

Bosch-Hastings said that meant building a “system to really capture a point in time.” The count will be conducted throughout the county in nine teams of four, including people like sheriff’s deputies, police officers and even people with access to heat-seeking drones to better spot people.

Bosch-Hastings added that Johnny’s Tavern owner Rick Renfro, part of the group of businesses that has sued the city in an effort to close a city-sanctioned homeless camp located behind his business in North Lawrence and another unsanctioned camp located behind the Amtrak station in East Lawrence, has donated $3,000 toward offering $10 to everyone who participates in the count voluntarily.

“Hopefully, it makes people want to participate and have a little bit of reward in giving up some information,” Bosch-Hastings said. “Even though it’s anonymous information, there’s some tough questions, so hopefully that will help with that.”

photo by: Shawn Valverde

Lawrence City Hall is pictured on Wednesday, Jan. 17, 2024.

photo by: Shawn Valverde

City and county leaders listen to Assistant Douglas County Administrator Jill Jolicoeur during a joint session on Wednesday, Jan. 17, 2024.


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