Douglas County Commission approves respite housing project, braces for pushback

photo by: Mackenzie Clark

Bob Tryanski, Douglas County's director of behavioral health projects, speaks to the Douglas County Commission during its Wednesday, May 1, 2019 meeting.

The Douglas County Commission has approved an agreement with a Kansas City, Mo.-based nonprofit that will provide respite housing and support for men with mental illness and substance use disorders.

However, commissioners are already bracing for pushback from possible neighbors of the home, for which a location has yet to be determined.

Artists Helping the Homeless, under its founder Kar Woo, runs two similar housing programs in the Kansas City area: Bodhi House and Finnegan Place. Those programs offer residents counseling, transportation, medical and dental care, scholarships and more, as will the house in Douglas County.

Jill Jolicoeur, assistant to the county administrator, clarified to the Journal-World after the meeting that the project will serve male Douglas County residents, as previously reported. She said another community agency, DCCCA, provides a similar program for women and families, and that more Oxford Houses and similar programs are available for women than men.

photo by: Mackenzie Clark

Jill Jolicoeur, assistant to the county administrator, speaks to the Douglas County Commission during its Wednesday, May 1, 2019 meeting.

Bob Tryanski, the county’s director of behavioral health projects, said there just isn’t a solution to the gap in services for men at the moment. Much of the available federal funding for substance use disorder programming targets women.

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April 17, 2019: ‘I need people to thrive’: Douglas County Commission hears about respite housing initiative

“This is not going to be a magic wand or a magic bullet, but I think in the behavioral health space, we have to think of equity in multiple dimensions, and gender is a piece of the equity gap,” Tryanski told the commission, as are race, ethnicity, insurance status and income.

Specifically, the AHH house will accept client referrals from community agencies including but not limited to the Lawrence Police Department and Douglas County Sheriff’s Office, Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center, DCCCA, the Lawrence Community Shelter and Lawrence Memorial Hospital’s intensive care team, according to the agreement.

Woo and his staff will seek out a house to lease or purchase in Lawrence. At an April 17 work session on the project, Woo told commissioners he’d prefer to purchase a house so he can do any necessary renovations.

Jolicoeur said the city’s planning director, Scott McCullough, had previously said he was fairly confident that a request for a waiver to house up to eight individuals in the home would be granted; after the first year, if the program is successful, staff can pursue a special use permit to accommodate up to 12 residents.

Commissioner Nancy Thellman said she had received a phone call from a neighborhood association leader saying that they supported the project but didn’t want the house to be in their neighborhood.

photo by: Mackenzie Clark

From left to right, Douglas County Commissioners Nancy Thellman, Michelle Derusseau and Patrick Kelly listen to a speaker during the commission’s meeting on Wednesday, May 1, 2019.

“Somehow we’re going to have to help shepherd this process and really live up to the expectation that this is a program that means it when it says it will be a good neighbor,” she said.

Commission Vice Chair Patrick Kelly said he’d received a similar call. He said he hoped that some of the members of the public who support these types of behavioral health interventions as potential means of reducing the county jail population will speak up in support of this project, should it receive pushback from neighbors.

Kelly also said that although he’s grateful that this project is happening now, he was disappointed that this service does not already exist in Douglas County.

“We seem to be doing a really good job of wanting to solve the problem, but I think we need to call upon ourselves to take care of our own community, and that’s disappointing to me,” he said.

Interim County Administrator Sarah Plinsky said the county’s hope is to get the program started in 2019. Jolicoeur said she thought some data on the program’s results would likely be available within six months to a year of its launch.

The program will cost roughly $400,000 per year, and the agreement the commission approved Wednesday runs over three years. The funding comes from existing budget authority in the county’s behavioral health projects budget of $1.9 million.

In other business, commissioners:

• Approved a proposal to allow a beer garden at the next Douglas County Fair.

• Attended a work session on a project charter to guide a forthcoming open space planning process. The commission doesn’t take action during work sessions, but the project charter will come back for approval on an agenda in the near future.

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