‘I need people to thrive’: Douglas County Commission hears about respite housing initiative

photo by: Mackenzie Clark

Kar Woo, founder of Artists Helping the Homeless, at center, speaks to Douglas County commissioners during their work session Wednesday, April 17, 2019. In back, from left to right, are Interim County Administrator Sarah Plinsky; Jill Jolicoeur, assistant to the county administrator; and attorney Eric Vernon, who is a member of the Artists Helping the Homeless board of directors. Facing away from the camera is Bob Tryanski, Douglas County director of behavioral health projects.

Douglas County Commissioner Patrick Kelly on Wednesday asked why, with all the social services and programs available in the area, the county hasn’t seen one like what Artists Helping the Homeless has to offer.

Kar Woo, the nonprofit’s founder, said it was because the county needed an outsider’s perspective.

“We are so used to the system, we don’t look at things differently,” Woo said. “You pick somebody like me that’s not in social work, not in the system, and foreign, to look at things differently.”

Woo has been in talks with Douglas County staff about bringing respite housing to the area for men with mental illness or substance use disorders.

Bob Tryanski, the county’s director of behavioral health projects, told commissioners that federal and state grant dollars are limited, but they’re also more available to provide services to women than to men. That leaves a gap in services, particularly for men ages 18-35.

“Safe, secure housing, sober living housing, transitional housing, supportive housing has got to be a major component of our strategic planning around building an integrated system of care that moves people from crisis to recovery and prevention,” Tryanski said.

Woo owned an art gallery in Leawood for many years. When he moved that gallery to the Kansas City plaza, he was surprised by the number of homeless people; that spurred him to take 20 sandwiches to a park one Sunday, which soon led to him launching a weekly meal program.

photo by: Mackenzie Clark

Kar Woo, founder of the Kansas City-based nonprofit Artists Helping the Homeless, speaks to the Douglas County Commission during its work session on Wednesday, April 17, 2019.

In 2008, he founded Artists Helping the Homeless, and the program grew to provide transportation to appointments. Woo noted that helping those with substance use disorders get through detox programs would be for naught if they ended up back on the streets afterward, so his group launched respite housing to fill that gap.

“Let’s give them a chance to reflect, regroup, find what their needs are, and then our job is to help them, guide them through those processes and thinking, and guide them to the level they want to be at,” Woo said of providing housing at no cost to those who came to the program wanting to change their lives.

If the program is approved in Douglas County, Woo and his group would find a residential home to lease or purchase. The home would be monitored 24/7 by full-time and part-time peer support specialists, which could also incorporate those who participate in the peer fellows program that the commission approved in March.

Woo said the home would offer residents counseling and support services, Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, legal services, medical and dental care. As a University of Kansas alumnus with a psychology degree, Woo said education is very important to him, so part of the program also makes scholarships available to residents.

“I don’t need people to survive — I need people to thrive,” Woo said.

Jill Jolicoeur, assistant to the county administrator, told the commission that the planning process seemed to be fairly simple to offer services for up to eight residents at a time. She said lengths of stay could range from 90 days to nine months, depending on the individual.

Costs for the program are estimated at $350,000 to $400,000 annually. Those funds would be provided through existing budget authority in the county’s behavioral health projects budget, according to information in the commission’s meeting agenda that was confirmed at the meeting.

The commission doesn’t take action in its work sessions. Jolicoeur said she hoped to have a memorandum of understanding in place by June. The MOU will come back to the commission for approval as soon as it is ready.

Contact Mackenzie Clark

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