photo by: Screenshot of Douglas County Commission meeting

The Douglas County Commission walked through a preliminary version of a homelessness needs assessment earlier this week, learning the extent of the problem locally based on some early findings.

Black and Indigenous people in Douglas County experience homelessness at a much higher rate than the general population, and the county doesn’t currently have the right kinds of housing options to address its homelessness issues, according to a report commissioned by Douglas County leaders.

The report, called a “homelessness needs assessment,” was discussed at the Douglas County Commission’s meeting this past week, about eight months after the study was first initiated by county leaders. The University of Kansas Center for Public Partnerships and Research conducted the study, which relied on a number of methods, including interviews with community members about their experiences and a review of community data.

CPPR researcher Owen Cox told the commission that there was still more work to be done, and that the findings so far were only preliminary. But he also said the early findings revealed some clear problems, including that the current housing options in Lawrence and Douglas County aren’t well-suited to serve community members who are at risk of homelessness or are currently experiencing it. Housing affordability in the community remains a deep concern, Cox said, and the stakeholders the CPPR talked to said affordable housing was one of the main resources needed in the community.

Researchers also determined that the community has few, if any, permanent supportive housing options on offer. Cox said the researchers identified about 150 individuals who would benefit from such housing to help them break the cycle of chronic homelessness.

“What we’re really looking toward is really how do we try to break that cycle by providing consistent supports?” Cox said. “The way we can do that is consistent, wrap-around supportive care to those who struggle with permanent housing in Lawrence and Douglas County.”

photo by: Screenshot of Douglas County Commission meeting

Owen Cox, a researcher with the University of Kansas Center for Public Partnerships and Research, told commissioners their study found that breaking the cycle of chronic homelessness will be an important goal moving forward.

There also aren’t enough opportunities for households to utilize rental assistance, Cox said.

“I don’t want to paint with a broad brush here; there are landlords who do accept rental assistance in the community, but we need more of that to take place to really target those individuals who are experiencing homelessness or those at risk of experiencing homelessness,” Cox said.

Commissioner Patrick Kelly asked about whether establishing tenants’ right to counsel might help to curb homelessness. The concept would grant tenants facing evictions the right to an attorney, similar to the right to a court-appointed attorney in criminal trials. It was a topic of recent public comments at a commission meeting in late April, and it’s been implemented in nearby Kansas City, Missouri.

Fellow commissioner Shannon Reid said having such a program could be critical, as it could give renters more space to think when they’re facing eviction, which is often a fast-paced situation that feels like a crisis.

“That feels like a really big and necessary piece to help break that cyclical nature of things,” Reid said.

The study also found a racial disparity in homelessness: Black and Indigenous people in Douglas County are experiencing homelessness at a higher rate than other groups. Cox said the data showed that Black people in Douglas County experience homelessness at a rate five times higher than the general population. For American Indian, Alaska Native or Indigenous people, the rate is between three and four times higher than the general population.

Cox said the latter rate might be even higher than that. He said there were some limitations on the data the center was able to collect, because homeless individuals are often “invisible,” or hard to find unless they’re already receiving services from a social service organization, for example. Cox said the center learned that Indigenous people, in particular, are likely to be in that “invisible” group.

The disparities aren’t just limited to race. The study also found that the gender distribution of people experiencing homelessness here is different from the national average. In Douglas County, about 51% of the homeless population is female; the national average is around 39% female.

“To be honest, we’re not totally sure what’s driving this particular factor, but it’s certainly something we’re interested in having investigated more fully,” Cox said. “What I should note is that in our conversations with service providers, they say that this isn’t an anomaly or a new factoid from the data that we got from the year that we’ve participated in the needs assessment. This has been something that has sort of been the way that the gender breakdown happens in Lawrence and Douglas County for a while.”

Another problem the study faced was that federal organizations and local ones have a variety of different definitions of homelessness. Cox said some offices, like the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, have much stricter definitions, whereas other offices like the U.S. Department of Education have broader definitions that include the “invisible” homeless population. That means there’s still more work to be done in order to paint a complete picture of homelessness in Douglas County, Cox said.

The CPPR expects to have a finalized version of the report by the end of June.