Lawrence homeless shelter announces plan to cut guest count by half, citing funding shortfall
photo by: Jackson Barton
The Lawrence Community Shelter plans to cut the number of guests it serves by nearly half next month, the shelter board’s president announced in a statement Friday.
The decision to reduce the shelter’s capacity from 125 to 65 by Sept. 1 ultimately comes down to a lack of funding, shelter board President Thea Perry told the Journal-World. But she also said that the shelter, anticipating it would get more money from local governments than it actually did, hired new staff members whom it now can’t afford to pay.
Now, Perry said, the shelter has to cut six of its 25 staff members, or about a quarter of its staff, and reduce the hours of 10 of its employees. Because of those cuts, she said, the shelter has to reduce the number of people it serves in order to maintain a safe ratio of staff to guests.
“This is one of the most difficult things that we could be doing,” Perry said of the capacity decrease. “We are deeply concerned for the wellbeing of the guests and we deeply appreciate the staff.”
The shelter says it has informed its guests of the capacity change and is working with community partners to help find alternate arrangements, if possible, for the 60 guests who can no longer stay at the shelter, according to a news release. Perry said those arrangements could include other shelters, addiction treatment programs or friends or family.
The 30 members of the shelter’s Family Program will remain guests, and the remaining 35 spots will be given to guests who have been prioritized based on their level of vulnerability, the release said.
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Earlier this year, the shelter requested $400,000 in emergency funding from local governments, comprising an additional $252,000 from the city and $148,000 from Douglas County. The shelter also requested an additional $309,000 from the city and $181,000 from Douglas County for 2020. At roughly the same time as the shelter was making those requests, Perry said, it decided to hire additional staff to work directly with the shelter’s guests.
Perry said the decision to increase the ratio of staff to shelter guests was for safety reasons and based on recommendations from a consultant, SS&C, which the city and county hired to work with the shelter earlier this year. SS&C advised the shelter that to keep its staff and 125 guests safe, at least four staff members would have to be working with guests at all times. Perry didn’t specify how many additional people the shelter had hired, but she said it was enough to hit the target of four people on duty at all times.
The shelter said it requested more from the city than the county because those funding breakdowns were what had historically been provided. However, city and county leaders have been reexamining their funding agreements and in June city leaders said that the breakdown of funding needed to be discussed with the county. Perry said the shelter did not modify its funding requests following the city’s comments. Ultimately, the city’s 2019 budget amendment and the city’s proposed budget for next year provides the same amount provided by the county, resulting in the shelter receiving about $300,000 less than it requested.
That wasn’t enough to keep those new hires on staff, Perry said. She said the shelter could only afford to have two people working with the guests at any given time — half the level of staffing it had been told was safe — and so the shelter will have to cut its number of guests by nearly half to bring the ratio back to a safe level.
“This a population of people who are vulnerable, the majority of whom experience mental illness and/or addiction,” Perry said. “And the level of staff with them is absolutely critical for the staff safety and for the guest safety.”
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In recent years, the shelter has had problems funding its services, and it’s also lacked consistent leadership.
The shelter’s latest executive director resigned in December, and the staff member who subsequently served as interim director announced plans to resign earlier this summer.
In addition, SS&C’s report showed that the percentage of the shelter’s budget funded privately and the percentage funded by local governments had essentially flip-flopped in a period of five years. Specifically, the shelter’s funding from private contributions decreased while funding from the city and county increased, from about 34% in 2014 to about 57% in 2019. SS&C Chief Operating Officer Erika Dvorske said in June that the goal would be to flip those percentages back within two years.
Perry said the shelter recently lost a key donor, and it would take a few years for it to balance the private-public funding. She also said the shelter wants the city and county to know how much their support is appreciated and that the shelter will continue to partner with them going forward.
Perry also said Friday that the shelter has hired a new executive director. She said Renee Kuhl, who has been doing nonprofit work in Chicago for the past few years, will begin the position Sept. 3.
Related coverage: Lawrence Community Shelter
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