County says it misspoke when it said it hadn’t looked at county-owned property for homeless project; review was done and produced ‘strong reservations’
photo by: City of Lawrence/Pallet
In the course of one day, Douglas County officials have changed their tune on whether they think a proposed village project for the homeless would be appropriate on county-owned land behind the Lawrence Community Shelter.
On Monday, a top county official said county staff had never researched whether use of the county-owned land would be feasible for the project, which is being pursued by city officials.
But on Tuesday afternoon, the county notified me that it “wants to clarify and correct a misstatement that was given to you yesterday,” regarding the homeless project.
In short, the county indeed has evaluated whether the site behind the Community Shelter — which is also adjacent to the Douglas County Jail — would be appropriate for a new homeless project, and told the city it would not be appropriate.
“As part of the evaluation process for sites, city staff approached county staff about the site next to the Douglas County Correctional Facility and the Lawrence Community Shelter on the eastern edge of Lawrence,” county spokeswoman Karrey Britt said via email. “County staff shared strong reservations with the city on that location.”
County officials, though, aren’t yet saying what those strong reservations are. Britt’s statement did not address the reservations, but I asked her in a follow up for details. She initially said the county would provide those details on Tuesday afternoon, but then said the county needed more time to provide a response because County Administrator Sarah Plinsky wasn’t available on Tuesday to provide a response.
I expect to talk with Plinsky on Wednesday and report back.
photo by: Douglas County GIS
On Monday, I talked with Plinsky’s top assistant, Jill Jolicoeur, the assistant county administrator who leads many of the county’s initiatives for homeless services. In that brief phone interview, I asked Jolicoeur what role the county was playing in helping the city find a site for its proposed “shelter village” project, which proposes to provide tiny shelters for about 75 people who are homeless.
Jolicoeur said the county wasn’t playing a role in that process. I then asked her whether the city had ever asked the county to consider whether the county-owned land would be appropriate for a homeless services project like the shelter village. She said “Not in any official request that I’m aware of.”
That response left me with some questions, so I asked whether it had come up in informal conversations with the county. She said, and I paraphrase here, that it had not come up in any meaningful way. That answer also left me with questions, so I decided to take a different tack and simply ask, whether at the request of the city or not, had the county ever evaluated the county-owned land for a potential homeless services project like the shelter village. Jolicoeur said the county had not.
That ended up being an inaccurate statement. Britt, the county spokeswoman, didn’t address how the misstatement came about. I suppose it is possible that Jolicoeur didn’t know about the county review that had occurred, but that would create a new set of questions about why the county official who most frequently oversees homeless projects wasn’t a part of the review.
The issue is an odd one, in that there also were indications that the city of Lawrence hadn’t seriously considered the county-owned site either. Jeff Crick, director of planning and development, told me on Monday that the county-owned property was not a site that he had ever evaluated for the homeless project.
The timing of all this also creates questions. On Monday, at about 2:30 p.m., I told City Manager Craig Owens via email that the county had told me the city never reached out formally to the county about whether the county-owned site would work for the project. I told him I thought that would surprise some people in the community, who believed that the county had reached out about the project. I asked for an interview with Owens about all this, but did not receive one. Instead, I was directed to Crick, who said the city had not looked at the county-owned site for the project.
As a reminder, this all came up because I reported that speculation is growing that the city is interested in a vacant lot about a block north of 19th and Haskell to locate the shelter village project. When I reported the city was moving towards buying that piece of privately-owned property, one question that emerged was why the city was not using the county-owned land that is directly behind the Lawrence Community Shelter in eastern Lawrence.
Hopefully on Wednesday, we will get more clarification on what concerns the county has expressed in regards to that property.
On one other note, I do believe the city has been looking at other areas of the community as it searches for property to buy. My sources have been much less specific about the city’s level of interest in this other site, which has been described to me as being near the I-70 corridor near where Michigan Street intersects with the interstate. If I hear more solid information, I’ll pass it along.