Editorial: A proposal to improve the Lawrence Community Shelter
photo by: Journal-World Photo Illustration
More bad news at the Lawrence Community Shelter shouldn’t lead to yet another discussion about how much more money local governments should give to the shelter. It should lead to a more in-depth discussion about what local governments can do beyond money to help the shelter, which provides a critical service to the community.
The recent news is that the shelter plans to cut the number of people it can house in half by next month. That will take the shelter to a capacity of about 65 people instead of 125 people. Beyond the hardship that will create for those 60 people who will no longer be housed at the shelter, the decision is also likely to disappoint private donors who have been supporting the shelter. Raising money for the shelter certainly won’t get any easier after that decision.
It appears a strategic mistake has compounded this issue. The shelter, anticipating it would get more from local governments than has been the case, hired additional employees. Those employees now are being cut shortly after being hired. Shelter leadership certainly misread the tea leaves at Lawrence City Hall, which has agreed to increase the amount of funding it gives the shelter but has not agreed to give the shelter all that it has requested. To some, that makes the city the bad guy in the scenario. That is too simplistic of an analysis.
Government leaders have a right to be wary of providing more money under the current set of circumstances. It is not clear that the shelter has the professional management expertise needed to turn the situation around. Until that changes, governments should be judicious in committing greater funding.
Without some additional government assistance, though, it is unlikely the situation at the shelter will improve. The assistance the shelter may need most is expertise. The city and the county likely can provide expertise with staffing that understands how to oversee budgets and operate a 24-hour, seven-day per week facility.
The shelter is blessed to have a volunteer board that is full of compassion and has much experience on the front lines of serving the homeless. That expertise shouldn’t be lost, but it needs to be supplemented with professional management expertise provided by local government. Whether government ought to own the shelter is a question that will need to be addressed. But, for the time being, it would be sufficient for government entities to simply control the majority number of seats on the shelter’s operating board.
With that position, local government can then start thinking outside the box. Are there facilities and resources governments already possess that could be repurposed to help the shelter?
An intriguing possibility to consider is the county’s Juvenile Detention Center. In April, the Journal-World reported that the director of the local juvenile detention center believes the county is close to the point of not needing a local detention center. The number of juveniles being housed has dropped considerably because of juvenile justice reform.
Could the county contract with a place like Johnson County for juvenile detention services and thus save significant dollars over running its own facility? Could those dollars be reinvested into the homeless shelter? Could the current juvenile detention center — with appropriate modifications to remove the jail-like elements — be converted to serve as a more efficient homeless shelter than the old warehouse building the shelter currently occupies? Do some of the managers and staff of the detention center already have some of the skills needed to serve a homeless shelter?
Furthermore, would Johnson County be interested in contracting for homeless services in a Lawrence-based shelter? Serving the homeless doesn’t seem to be a strong suit of Johnson County currently. It would seem that Johnson County probably has a greater number of homeless individuals than Douglas County has juvenile offenders in need of housing. Douglas County could come out ahead in such a partnership.
Or, maybe there are reasons such a partnership would never work. But government leaders need to explore bigger ideas to solving the problems that plague the shelter. It provides a critical community service. As such, there is no shame in government becoming more involved. It simply must avoid the trap of believing money alone will solve the problems.