Editorial: City and county must provide better leadership for homeless shelters

photo by: Journal-World Photo Illustration

Lawrence Journal-World Editorial

There are lots of good people involved in the nonprofit, largely volunteer organizations that try to serve the homeless in Lawrence. Now, City of Lawrence and Douglas County officials need to provide those organizations with some good leadership.

Such leadership is needed fast. Signs are becoming increasingly obvious that the community’s homeless service organizations simply aren’t up to the task. That’s hard to say because lack of compassion and good intentions aren’t among the downfalls of the organizations. The current homeless service leaders deserve our thanks because they are doing the work many others are not. Yet, in some key ways, the organizations are failing. Here are examples:

• Community volunteers are begging for space in local churches to house a temporary shelter to serve people during cold winter nights. Yet, the actual Lawrence Community Shelter had 35 bed spaces going unused on cold winter nights when the Journal-World inquired about the situation in late January. Management at the Community Shelter says it is not so simple as filling those beds. While there certainly would be issues to overcome, there are no insurmountable issues in this matter. The organizers of the temporary winter shelter have proven there are volunteers ready to staff a shelter. The struggle had been finding space. The shelter has space. This can be done, especially on an emergency basis.

• The temporary winter shelter abruptly left its space at Lawrence’s First United Methodist Church after leaders of the shelter said the shelter was attracting more guests than the church had agreed to serve. That made it sound as if the church threw up its hands and said it could no longer continue. The church’s head pastor, however, clarified that wasn’t the case. The church was willing to continue serving as an emergency winter shelter, but it insisted that no more than 15 guests could stay at the church. That is the limit the city’s zoning code places on the church. After the closure, there were several nights where there was no emergency shelter, and homeless service advocates were handing out tents. Perhaps this is just an unfortunate case of miscommunication, but the situation was badly managed. It is hard to understand why the temporary shelter closed rather than simply abide by the 15-person limit. It is better to keep the shelter open and house 15 people and turn five away, rather than close the shelter and turn 20 away.

• In the late-January article in the Journal-World, one Lawrence Community Shelter leader stated that her desire was to see a communitywide model where other local entities operate overnight shelters during the winter at multiple sites. That is bad strategic thinking. The prospect of multiple shelter sites run by multiple organizations would create many inefficiencies, including duplication of services and needless competition for resources. The Lawrence Community Shelter is an underfunded organization that needs to be seeking greater efficiencies. A strategic vision that includes multiple entities running multiple shelters goes in the wrong direction.

The last point is important because it acknowledges the Lawrence Community Shelter is underfunded. Part of the leadership city and county officials need to provide may include greater public funding. But it is clear that money alone is not the issue. Funding for the shelter has increased, and it is hard for many observers to say the shelter is in a better place currently. Lawrence’s homeless shelter services feel like they are duct-taped together and at risk of coming apart at any time.

Before the city and county provide more money, the two governments should insist on having more seats on the Lawrence Community Shelter’s operating board. The two governments then should determine what expertise or services they can provide to the shelter in-kind. Some could be relatively simple, like maintenance and janitorial services. The county has those basically next door to the shelter at the Douglas County Jail and the Douglas County Public Works building.

Other services may be more complex. The city and county both have purchasing departments that may be able to help with cost control for the shelter. The county in particular has experts on its staff in sheltering and feeding people. Both governments have trained financial professionals that can assist in budget-making and cash-flow management. Other examples likely could be found if the city and county look for them.

The shelter should not become a city or county department. That likely would sap the shelter of the valuable energy volunteers provide. It also probably would spell the end of its donor program.

It is unfortunate that government must become more involved in this venture, but the results are proving that it must.


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