Lawrence City Commission approves $31,000 in additional funding for homeless shelter
photo by: Jackson Barton
After hearing several comments from people who are currently or were recently homeless, city leaders voted unanimously on Tuesday to provide $31,000 of the city’s surplus sales tax proceeds to the Lawrence Community Shelter.
The funding will temporarily allow the shelter to increase its capacity on cold nights. At its regular meeting, the Lawrence City Commission heard more than an hour of public comment about issues facing homeless people in Lawrence and the funding request.
One commenter told the commission she was currently homeless and had been camping in the woods. She said that if she were able to stay at the shelter, she would be able to get the help that she needs.
She said she became homeless four years ago after fleeing domestic violence and that she doesn’t have the paperwork she needs to even get identification.
“I would be there and they would help me,” she said. “I’d have a caseworker. I’d have hope. I don’t have any hope. I wake up every morning just trying to survive.”
She was one of several people who have been homeless who addressed the commission Tuesday, with a few saying that the shelter had helped them get housed. About a dozen other residents also spoke in favor of the commission providing the shelter at least the additional $31,000. Some said that increasing the capacity wasn’t just important for the winter months, but would also be crucial in the summer when temperatures are dangerously hot.
Many of the commenters asked that the commission go beyond the $31,000 and fully fund the shelter’s 2020 budget request.
When the commission was creating the 2020 budget last summer, the homeless shelter asked the city to increase its funding from about $200,000 to $504,000. The commission instead approved $296,000 for the shelter, matching the direct funding provided by Douglas County. However, at that time, then-Mayor Lisa Larsen said she wanted to watch how city sales tax collections finished the year and potentially modify the budget to give the shelter more money if receipts came in better than expected. Lawrence received about $400,000 more in sales and use tax collections in 2019 than it had budgeted for, and the commission voted at its meeting Jan. 7 to consider the funding request.
Because of budget shortfalls for 2020 and increases in staffing requirements, the shelter has reduced its capacity from 125 to 90 people. Lawrence Community Shelter Executive Director Renee Kuhl said the $31,000 would only allow the shelter to provide 15 additional beds through mid-April, and only on nights when the temperatures dropped under 40 degrees.
In response to questions from the commission regarding why the shelter only requested funding for 15 additional beds, Kuhl said the shelter cut 30% or 40% of its trained staff in August and does not currently have a plan to replace those staff members. Kuhl said the 15 temporary cold-weather beds were what the shelter could accommodate now. She said the shelter’s board would need to discuss whether the goal was to get back to the 125-bed capacity.
Vice Mayor Brad Finkeldei, who is involved with a temporary, volunteer-run shelter at First United Methodist Church, said that the church shelter has served 42 individuals since opening last month and it’s clear the additional 15 beds will not meet the need in the community. Finkeldei said that one man who was recently served at the church shelter had been sleeping outside at times and had to have some of his toes removed because of frostbite.
“That’s not the way we should be treating folks,” Finkeldei said. “And so, I think it is a much bigger conversation we have to have and continue to have.”
Finkeldei said he would support additional funding and that the conversation should not wait until this summer, when the commission begins discussing the 2021 budget. Other commissioners also agreed that the city and shelter need to further discuss how to address homelessness, and that the conversation would also involve other social service agencies that the city provides funding for.
All of the commissioners agreed that the shelter’s funding request met the guidelines in the city’s supplementary budget request policy. That policy states that in considering such requests, the commission will evaluate whether the request is a high enough priority to justify the allocation of contingency funds and that commission must also evaluate the long-range implications of fulfilling the request.
• In other business, the commission received a draft of the first sections of the Downtown Master Plan, which included the plan’s vision statement and guiding principles. Once complete, the draft plan will provide policy recommendations for downtown development and land use for the next 20 years. The full draft will come back to the commission for consideration at a later date.