Survey: Lawrence homeless count increases by 35% in one year

photo by: Jackson Barton

The Lawrence Community Shelter is pictured Friday Aug. 9, 2019.

When Jade Vargas was evicted from her apartment and went to the local homeless shelter for a place to stay, she said she was turned away. So instead, she’s been sleeping in the stairwell of a parking garage in downtown Lawrence.

“I’ve been trying every day to get in and every day they just tell me, no, there’s no room, they aren’t taking anybody new,” Vargas said.

Vargas is one of a growing number of homeless people in Lawrence vying for a shrinking number of beds at the Lawrence Community Shelter.

The results of an annual count of the Lawrence area’s homeless population were recently released, and the survey indicates that there are about 400 homeless people in the area, an increase of about 100 people over last year. However, because of a budget shortfall, the shelter is in the process of reducing its capacity by about half and has already stopped accepting new guests.

Why the increase

The annual “point-in-time” survey is a count of sheltered and unsheltered homeless people on a single night in January. This January, the survey recorded 396 homeless people, 18% of whom were unsheltered. Last year, the survey recorded 294 people, 16% of whom were unsheltered. The count recorded represents a 35% increase from 2018 to 2019. The Kansas Statewide Homeless Coalition coordinates the count with volunteers and other social service organizations, and the results were recently provided to the city.

Mathew Faulk, homeless outreach program manager for Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center, said two reasons are behind the increase. Faulk, who helps organize the count, said he thought the increase was the result of both an increase in the homeless population and a more concerted and organized effort among volunteers who perform the manual count and related surveys.

“I think this is just a better, more realistic reflection of the amount of need we experience in Douglas County,” Faulk said.

Faulk said he thought the homeless population was increasing because the city’s overall population was increasing but the level of social services was not increasing in tandem. He said the city’s affordable housing shortage compounded the problem.

“As the population has grown and as spending or resources available for folks who are homeless has remained flat, the population is going to increase,” Faulk said. “In a real way, it’s a pretty straightforward issue, I think.”

Faulk noted that the survey just reflects one day, and it doesn’t represent that total number of people who experience homelessness over the span of the year. He also emphasized that the survey was voluntary and that his team had several people decline to participate, so they know the numbers are actually higher than what is recorded.

Vargas said she was on disability and had previously been homeless but that she’d been able get an apartment several months ago with the help of local social service agencies. However, Vargas said she was recently evicted after not replacing a broken screen within the timeframe of an official notice from her landlord. She said it was difficult to find a new place to live in part because some landlords ask for a tenant’s income to be three times the monthly rent.

Kansas Statewide Homeless Coalition Executive Director Kate Watson agreed with Faulk’s reasons for the increase. Watson, whose office is in Lawrence, said that this year she had received more phone calls and emails from people who were homeless or about to be homeless than any of the past four years she’s been in her position. That’s despite unemployment levels being at or near historic lows in many communities. Watson said Lawrence was not an outlier in the state and that homeless counts also increased in other Kansas cities. For Lawrence, though, she said the increase was compounded by the decrease in capacity at the shelter.

Reducing capacity

Shelter board president Thea Perry said she was not at all surprised by the results of the survey. She said that before the recent reductions the shelter was at capacity more often than it used to be.

“Given that high point-in-time count, it’s very clear that the need for support of the homeless community has always been larger than the capacity in town.”

Because of both a budget shortfall and increases in what the shelter considers a safe staffing level, the shelter decided to reduce its capacity from 125 to 65 people by Sept. 1, the Journal-World previously reported. Perry said that the shelter stopped accepting new guests on Aug. 8 in an attempt to decrease the number of people it has to make leave come Sept. 1.

No families will be kicked out of the shelter, and Perry said the shelter was assessing each guest’s level of vulnerability to determine which individuals could stay. As part of its decision, Perry said, the shelter is considering guests’ age, gender, physical health, mental health and factors such as whether they have a history of being involved in human trafficking.

Since the decision to reduce its capacity, the shelter has been working with guests to find alternate arrangements. Perry said that included other shelters, friends or family, or helping them find an apartment if that was an option. She said that through a county-supported program, each exiting guest also has the option to meet with staff from Heartland Regional Alcohol & Drug Assessment Center.

County Administrator Assistant Jill Jolicoeur said Heartland could help connect the people having to exit the center with other social services, inpatient treatment if appropriate, or next steps in the recovery process.

Perry said that so far the shelter has helped six people find alternative housing and that those efforts would continue. However, she acknowledged that for some people, such alternatives have already been exhausted.

“If we had options for them before now, we would have already been working to help them get into those alternative spaces, and there just is not enough,” Perry said. “And so we do know that there will be people who will just end up back on the street.”

When asked if she had plans for when the weather gets colder, Vargas said she did not. She said that she didn’t know all the circumstances of the funding issues that caused the shelter’s capacity reduction, but said there has got to be help from somewhere. She said some people were already sleeping outside as she does, and she imagines even more will be doing so once the shelter reduces capacity.

“They’ll sleep at the river, in the parks, in the shadows and anywhere they can downtown,” Vargas said.


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