Coalition continues effort to house Lawrence homeless amid coronavirus pandemic; about 140 people still living outside

photo by: Ashley Hocking/Journal-World File Photo

This file photo from January 2018 shows a bench and mural at the second-floor entrance, where administrative offices and services for children and families are housed, at Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center, 200 Maine St.

For those working to quickly house unsheltered homeless people during the coronavirus pandemic, the list of people living outside has actually grown longer despite progress.

Those who work with the homeless say that’s because an inadvertent outcome of the stay-at-home order is that it has allowed them to get a more accurate count of how many people are living outside — and that number is roughly double what surveys previously identified. Though even as the list has grown, local efforts to house the homeless have continued thanks to both grants and local fundraising campaigns.

Mathew Faulk, supportive housing supervisor at Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center, explained that when the stay-at-home order closed many public buildings, it essentially funneled unsheltered homeless people through fewer locations, allowing a more complete count. For example, whereas before those people could get water and shower in city recreation centers all over town, now the facilities at the City of Lawrence Outdoor Aquatic Center provide the only option.

“With all the community buildings shut down and people not having access to things like portable water or showers, it’s really limited who they can come to for services and to meet their needs,” Faulk said. “We have showers up now at the community pool, and that’s allowed us to have contact with a bunch of people we weren’t aware of being unsheltered.”

A larger need

Faulk, who helps conduct the annual point-in-time homeless count, said because participating in the count is voluntary and dependent on volunteers finding unsheltered homeless people wherever they may be camping or sleeping, it is known that the count only represents a portion of those living outside. However, Faulk said the stay-at-home order has given even more insight into the count’s margin of error when it comes to the number of unsheltered people. He said the count is much more accurate when it comes to those living in shelters.

The results of the 2020 point-in-time homeless count were recently released, and it identified 408 total homeless people in Lawrence on Jan. 22, the day the count was performed. Of those, 148 were in emergency shelters, 185 in transitional housing, and 75 were living outside. However, Faulk said even after housing about 30 households since the coronavirus outbreak, the list of unsheltered people maintained by the coalition behind the effort still has 110 households, representing 137 individuals. Outside of that, there are approximately another 45 people at local shelters or who are precariously housed, such as temporarily staying with friends.

The coalition of social service organizations leading the effort to house the homeless during the pandemic doesn’t currently have the resources to house all those people, and Faulk said it is prioritizing based on age and health condition. As the Journal-World previously reported, Bert Nash received $50,000 in state funds to assist with housing unsheltered individuals and families in an effort to contain the coronavirus. Leaders at Bert Nash, The Willow Domestic Violence Center, Family Promise and the Lawrence Community Shelter have been seeking landlords who will rent their empty units to the unsheltered homeless or populations living in tightly quartered shelters.

Faulk said there is still about $17,800 left from the grant, which he estimates could help house 10 to 15 more households. However, funding is not the only challenge. Faulk said the coalition continues to struggle to find landlords willing to rent to the homeless, even on a temporary basis. He said finding landlords and property managers willing to work with the coalition is vital in the effort to flatten the local rate of new infections.

“If we as a community are going to do our best to level the curve and to maximize our response and public safety around COVID-19, then we need to have the ability to shelter folks who aren’t sheltered right now,” Faulk said. “If any of those people have COVID-19, they are just out in the community. They can’t observe protocols, we have no way to quarantine them, we have no way to isolate them.”

The Lawrence Community Shelter

In addition to the grant money, the Lawrence Community Shelter has been fundraising to help house people quickly who are staying at the shelter. The shelter’s executive director, Renee Kuhl, said the shelter has been able to raise more than $17,000 toward the effort. So far, the shelter has been able help find housing for 40 people and an additional 12 people have left the shelter to live with friends or family members.

Kuhl said the shelter has gotten funding support from the coalition to aid in its efforts and still has about $14,000 left from its fundraising efforts. She said the shelter is preparing to house another three or four people next week, all of whom have places to stay lined up. Kuhl expressed gratitude for the landlords who have been working with the shelter in that effort, but like Faulk, she said it still a challenge to find enough landlords and property managers to accept those staying at the shelter. Apart from income requirements, she said some shelter guests have criminal records or other issues.

“Landlords haven’t lessened their restrictions and their requirements just because we are in this crisis,” Kuhl said. “All of us as providers struggle to find people who will be accommodating even when we are telling property managers and landlords that we have the money.”

The shelter stopped accepting new guests amid the pandemic and, following the 52 exits, is now only housing 23 people, according to Kuhl. She said the reduction in guests has allowed the shelter to spread people out in the dormitories by leaving empty beds between occupied beds.

Homelessness amid the pandemic

Until there is treatment or a vaccine for the virus, Kuhl said the virus will continue to be a concern for the shelter and other congregate living arrangements. However, she said efforts are ongoing so that the shelter can begin accepting new guests soon.

Specifically, Kuhl said the shelter has begun health screenings of guests, regularly sanitizes surfaces and requires guests and staff to wear facemasks. In addition, the shelter is working with Douglas County to find an off-site location to quarantine people as needed.

Kuhl said once the off-site location is set up, the shelter will start accepting new guests again. She said she expected intake of new guests to begin by May 3, when the statewide stay-at-home order is scheduled to lift, or perhaps sooner. She said she realized the importance of the shelter amid the pandemic, including for the unsheltered people living in Lawrence.

“We are anxious to start bringing people back into the shelter, because we know what’s happening in the community,” Kuhl said. “We know that this has been such a disruption to people’s economic lives, to their personal lives, to their ability to access resources. And we know that makes the emergency shelter even more crucial when you are seeing this level of disruption.”

Faulk said that the coronavirus and the economic uncertainly it has brought for some has only highlighted the weaknesses in society. Faulk said he sees the large amount of people who are unsheltered, not just in Lawrence but across the nation, as evidence of something really fundamental that society is not getting right. He said to have a strong and robust community, those issues need to be addressed.

“That is really the litmus test and the measure of where we are as society in relation to equity, and how well we are caring for each other,” Faulk said.


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