Lawrence homeless shelter ‘on the ropes’ financially; city and county to discuss increasing funding

photo by: Mike Yoder

Lawrence Community Shelter, 3655 E. 25th St.

The Lawrence Community Shelter expects to face a budget shortfall of more than $200,000 next year, and shelter leaders may be looking to local governments for financial help.

At its meeting Tuesday, the Lawrence City Commission heard a presentation from shelter staff about staffing and funding issues. The commission agreed that City Manager Tom Markus should continue discussion with the shelter and Douglas County to figure out ways to make the shelter more sustainable.

Markus told the commission that the shelter has an important function that is in danger and that the city and county may need to increase their funding. He said he thought the county and city needed to come to an agreement to increase resources for the shelter both in the short term and into the future.

“While we may all agree that it’s not working as well as it could right now, if we let this falter, the task to rebuild something like this is going to become even more monumental,” Markus said. “It’s really on the ropes right now, and I think, quite frankly, we need to figure out how we’re going to stabilize this, how we’re going to make it sustainable.”

The shelter has faced financial issues in recent years, and its assistant director, Charles Frager, told the commission that the shelter is projecting a funding gap of $246,000 for 2019. While the shelter has four sources of stable funding, including the city and county, Frager said that funding only covered about half of the shelter’s expenses and that the remainder must be gathered annually through fundraising efforts.

“That is foundations (and) individual donors,” Frager said. “So we have almost half of our budget that we have to outreach every year.”

The shelter’s 2019 budget is about $1.16 million, with the four sources of stable funding covering about $482,000, according to a presentation provided to the commission. Of the $482,000 of stable funding for 2019, the city provides $195,000, the county provides $115,000, the United Way provides $75,000, and about $97,000 comes from federal grants.

That means the shelter must raise about $675,000 to close the budget gap. It has thus far raised about $430,000, leaving the projected shortfall of about $246,000.

Complicating fundraising efforts is the fact that the shelter has not had a development director for eight months, the shelter’s board president, Thea Perry, told commissioners. The development director’s job is to raise money for the shelter, a function that has recently been performed, at least in part, by the shelter’s executive director, along with her other duties.

Because of some of the shelter’s difficulties, the structure of both the services and leadership at the shelter are being reconsidered. Markus noted that decreases in federal and state funding for social services also had local consequences.

About 84 percent of those staying at the shelter are from Kansas. Sixty-two percent are from Douglas County, according to the presentation. About 52 percent are from Lawrence. Frager said they would actually expect to see more people coming from surrounding counties and that he thought the percentage of Lawrence residents that the shelter directly serves was still significant.

Of all those who use the shelter, more than half have mental health problems and more than 75 percent have been homeless more than once, Frager said. Both of those characteristics are more than double national averages for homeless people.

Frager said they didn’t know the reason for the high percentage of those with mental health problems. He said the percentage of homeless people served by the shelter might be related to the percentage of people who come from outside the area.

“Basically, we have a situation which is the inverse of the national average,” Frager said. “Part of that is we have people who come to Lawrence as a goal or as a weigh station on the way across the country.”

However, Frager said he thought the perception of Lawrence as a destination for homeless people was changing and that the shelter was not seeing as many people from outside the area as it had in the past.

The shelter provides 125 beds and three meals per day, and case managers at the shelter assist homeless people in finding medical services, employment and housing, according to the presentation. Frager said that each person had unique issues that he or she was dealing with and that the shelter was considering coordinating more with local services to allow less case management to be done in-house.

The shelter has also seen a succession of leaders over the past few years, and the current executive director, Sarah Jane Russell, recently announced plans to resign at the end of the year. Russell is the fourth director the shelter has had since longtime director Loring Henderson retired in May 2014. Perry told commissioners that the shelter will consider whether the executive director’s duties should be split up between multiple positions.

Markus noted that issues at the shelter had been a recurring theme and that things needed to change to make the shelter successful and sustainable. Commissioners agreed they would like the city to be involved, and Markus said he intended to continue dialog with the shelter. He said the issue would also involve discussions with representatives from Douglas County.

County Commissioner Nancy Thellman was in attendance at Tuesday’s meeting and said during public comment that the county’s upcoming investments into mental health care, including a behavioral health campus approved by voters in the fall, might lighten the shelter’s burden. She also said she was hopeful about the shelter’s future following the evening’s discussion.

“This makes me hopeful that we might help these good people solve a serious problem,” Thellman said.

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