Editorial: Time to face facts at Lawrence’s homeless shelter

photo by: Journal-World Photo Illustration

Lawrence Journal-World Editorial

Nationally, you hear about institutions that are “too big to fail.” Lawrence, though, isn’t really a “too big to fail” town. Instead, it is often a “too kind to fail” community.

For evidence, look to two recent votes. Voters in 2017 approved a new sales tax for affordable housing when there wasn’t even a plan for how to use the new money. And in 2018 voters didn’t blink an eye in appropriating millions of dollars to add a whole new discretionary wing to Douglas County government: a mental health division.

That wouldn’t happen in every community. Those initiatives would have failed in many other places, but not in Lawrence and Douglas County. We are too kind to let those initiatives fail.

There are worse problems to have than being a kind and compassionate community. The Lawrence Community Shelter, the homeless shelter, should be thankful it is in such a place.

The shelter again is in a mess. It again is looking for a permanent director, and now its interim director is resigning next month. The organization also is seeking nearly $150,000 in emergency funding from the county this year and about $250,000 from the city.

Those are the signs of an organization in dire straits, but it seems highly unlikely that the shelter is going to fail. Is there really any likelihood that an electorate who approves money for affordable housing and mental health is simply going to allow the community to not provide emergency housing? Why even have an affordable housing plan if you are not going to provide emergency shelter, the most basic level of the housing safety net?

No, hopefully elected leaders understand that the city and county already own the Community Shelter, for all intents and purposes. The years of local government funding and bailouts have made the city and the county the de facto majority shareholders of the entity.

That mindset should guide what comes next. The county last week tasked the Community Shelter’s board with creating a more structured plan before the county will consider the request for additional funding. Certainly a plan is needed, but a better idea would be for the city and the county to lead that planning. The situation calls for more management horsepower than what the shelter board can likely deliver.

Ideally, step No. 1 would be for the city and the county to agree which government would take the lead on this issue. Unfortunately, even that decision may test the city and county’s ability to cooperate. But it needs to happen. Again, what are we going to do? Spend millions of dollars on affordable housing only to point our most vulnerable to a semi-dry spot under a bridge?

With one of the local governments taking the lead in planning, more serious ideas can be explored. For example, are there existing structures within local government that could provide management assistance or expertise to the shelter?

Three come to mind. The first is the Lawrence-Douglas County Housing Authority. It has expertise in providing housing to those in need. Emergency shelter is different, but certainly is in the same universe. The second is the county’s Juvenile Detention Center. It has expertise in running a safe and secure facility for people in need. As we have reported, that department is serving fewer people, which may mean that its management structure might have some capacity to take on other duties. The third is the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office, which operates the county jail. Like the detention center, it has expertise in running a safe and secure facility that houses people. This idea has the added benefit of the jail and the homeless shelter being next door neighbors. Does that proximity provide some opportunities for operational efficiency?

Many people will have to check their political correctness at the door. It will be easy to hear the howls that we are criminalizing homelessness by allowing the sheriff’s office to be involved with anything at the shelter. It doesn’t have to be that way. The sheriff’s office has more than just deputies who arrest people. It has a whole division that works at trying to help people turn their lives around.

Whatever the solution, it is time to face the facts. The fact is, the solution for the shelter is going to involve more of this kind community.

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