May 1, 2016. Lawrence Journal-World.

The newest tenant of Rohan Ridge Apartments, Kayla Brown, broke conversation with a new neighbor late Tuesday afternoon when she spotted an old truck turn into the complex’s parking lot.

From her doorway, she had been watching for it, waiting.

Brown, 27, hurried down the stairs from her second-floor, three-bedroom apartment and met the truck as it pulled into a stall. A Lawrence Community Shelter employee drove the old Chevrolet Silverado, loaded with boxes and bags of donated dishes, toys, clothing and other essentials.

More than the supplies, Brown was anxious to see were her two children, just retrieved from day care and smiling from the front seat.

The kids —5-year-old Joseph, or “Joe Joe,” and 3-year-old Amiyah — jumped from the cab, ran to their mom to give her a quick hug, and then darted up the stairs and in and out of every room of their new home.

For the first time in seven months, Brown and her two kids would go to sleep that night in their own space, and not in the homeless shelter. For the first time ever, they had a place that belonged only to them.

Affordable housing ‘severe’ in Douglas County

A lack of affordable housing is a problem nationwide, with municipalities scrambling for solutions and some experts calling for federal housing policy to address it. The issue has received increased attention in the past year from Lawrence leaders, who ordered the creation of an affordable housing advisory board; reactivated a dormant affordable housing trust fund; and funded the new transitional housing program that helped Brown and her family into an apartment.

Now, conversations are beginning on what the city should do next.

They’ll decide whether the trust fund should be replenished, and, if so, where that funding should come from. There are some calls for millions of dollars in funding.

Discussions begin on Monday about whether affordable units should be a requirement in residential developments receiving city subsidies.

“I think Lawrence has always cared about the issue, but I’d say we’ve had more conversations about it and we’ve had a lot of initiative behind it,” said Shannon Oury, executive director of the Lawrence-Douglas County Housing Authority and a member of the new advisory board. “As our population increases and our town grows, I want our affordable housing to grow with it, because Lawrence is a great place to live. And we want to make sure everyone who wants to can live here.”

In at least some towns with large universities, such as Lawrence, housing can be especially harsh. Students’ demand for apartments creates an expensive environment for single parents looking in the same market, Oury explained.

A national ranking of health by county designated Douglas County’s housing problems as “severe” and the second-worst in the state in 2016 behind Riley County. The ranking takes into consideration the cost and quality of housing, and in Douglas County, “what drives us being down here is our cost,” said Dan Partridge, director of the Lawrence-Douglas County Health Department.

A lack of affordable housing has bred a waiting list — 618 long at the end of 2015 — for housing vouchers and access to public or other low-income housing. And the list is growing. In the time since Oury took over as director of the Housing Authority five years ago, she’s seen the list increase by more than 160 people, or 36 percent.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t success stories. Last year, an average of 22 families were brought into transitional housing each month. Many of those benefiting from transitional housing — 83 percent since 2008 — successfully completed that program.

But it does mean people are being added onto the waiting list faster than others can be taken off of it.

In her office Thursday morning, Oury flipped through a list of about 60 individuals or families waiting for transitional housing. That can include anyone who doesn’t fall into another category, such as seniors or the disabled. The federal funding for this list keeps declining.

This list is the one Justice Matters, a conglomeration of 22 local religious organizations, asked city leaders to commit to eliminating by 2019. Both Oury and Partridge credited the group with pushing a citywide conversation about affordable housing into the forefront.

The Rev. Randy Weinkauf, a pastor at Immanuel Lutheran Church and member of Justice Matters, said eliminating the list “is doable.”

“Those are families where one spouse is fleeing abuse; it’s youth leaving foster care. It might be someone in jail or a mental health facility having done their time and ready to re-enter society,” Weinkauf said. “That particular list is the most vulnerable people in it. That’s the one we want to go away in the next couple of years.”

Brown’s family will remain on that list until she’s completed her time in transitional housing and moves on to a more permanent situation — something she’s committed to seeing through.

Benefiting from a new, locally funded program

At one point in her life, Brown slept under the Kansas River bridge in Lawrence. Friends took her in, and soon after, she sought treatment for drug abuse at Social & Rehabilitation Services.

She stayed at Lawrence Community Shelter in March 2015 for a little more than two months before she, her children and her children’s father moved to Mississippi.

“He said, ‘I’m going to Mississippi,’ and I said, ‘Well, I’m going, too.’ I was thinking, anyways, it was a new start, a fresh start,” said Brown.

At the end of the summer, her significant other turned abusive, Brown said. Brown left with her children and came back to Lawrence, where her family — now the three of them — was given a space at the shelter.

To Brown, moving back into the shelter was a ” jump-start.”

“I told them, ‘I don’t have no where to go. My kids have no where to go. I just want to accomplish stuff on my own and get my life and my kids’ lives right,’” Brown said. “I got a second chance. I’ve been busting my ass to prove I’m so serious about this second chance.”

Now almost a year after she left for Mississippi, Brown has a full-time job as a home health aid. She has a car, a donated 1998 Honda. And she has a kitchen, her own bedroom, and a bright living room with yellow walls she wants to adorn with family photos.

Brown’s is one of four families at the Lawrence Community Shelter to receive a grant and housing voucher — good for two years — through the new transitional housing program established by the city and the county. The approximately one-year old program, called “New Horizons,” is targeted especially toward families living in the shelter.

Two more families received vouchers through the program and are looking for homes. Another two were just accepted into it.

Though after seven months it felt past time to leave the shelter, Brown said, she was “very, very blessed.”

A friend of Brown’s had just moved out after a year at the shelter. And, according to the Lawrence-Douglas County Housing Authority, the average wait time for vouchers in 2015 was 14 months, a shorter period than a historic norm of 18 months.

“I think I’d probably still be on the wait list if it didn’t come through,” Brown said. “Like I said, I’m blessed. It didn’t take no year. It didn’t take no two years.”

And Brown’s move directly benefited more than just her and her kids. Because not only is there a waiting list for affordable housing in Lawrence, at times there’s a waiting list to get into the community shelter, where the family side perpetually remains at capacity.

A waiting list for the waiting list

While helping Brown move into her new apartment Tuesday morning, Sheryl Sanders, the family program coordinator at the Lawrence Community Shelter, took a call from a mother of three who was looking for a place to go.

Sanders explained to the woman there were other families in line before hers. She was seventh on a list seven families long.

The families that make it onto the transitional housing wait list are put on there by the Lawrence Community Shelter, Bert Nash, EKAN, or other, similar agencies.

Brown’s room will go to two single mothers, each with one child, Sanders said. Another couple and their child moved out of the shelter last week, and someone on the list will take their place, too.

“When we cycle people out, we cycle people in,” Sanders said. “You just don’t think about it, but we get calls at least three or four days a week, or people show up with their kids, saying, ‘We need some place to go.’ We are at capacity. We always are. But we don’t’ want to turn anybody away. So we really work hard on getting folks housed, so we can provide help to other people.”

“We’re on a hot streak,” she said. “With that New Horizons money, we’ve been able to move people out.”

Oury sees the constant turnover at the shelter as the reason the New Horizons program was necessary and why she thinks assistance for families at the shelter should continue.

Once New Horizons houses all the accepted families, the Housing Authority will pause and take a look at how many more families, if any, can get involved.

Funding of $100,000 from each Douglas County and the City of Lawrence were one-time payments. The Affordable Housing Advisory Board will consider whether to ask that the program be funded again through the city’s 2017 budget. They could take that recommendation, and any other funding requests, to the City Commission.

“My thought is that we prioritize families at the shelter,” Oury said. “It’s particularly dire to get the families into a more stable situation. And I have a feeling for every family to move out, there’s a family needing to move in. The people who can’t get into the shelter, they’re living at the Clinton Lake campground or in their car, one of those kinds of things.”

Those receiving the assistance through New Horizons receive a grant for deposits and pay what they can of rent and utility bills while the Housing Authority pays the remainder directly to landlords and utility providers.

The assistance lasts for two years, during which households must be supported by services to help them become more self-sufficient. For Brown — admittedly bad at budgeting — that includes going through financial literacy classes.

At the end of the two years, families could receive a federal Section 8 voucher that provides a subsidy directly to landlords, with tenants paying the difference.

A full two years of assistance for each family is important, Oury explained, to allow them enough time to get to the top of the waiting list for a Section 8 voucher. If a family is pulled from a transitional housing program before they make it to the top of the list, they could end up going to other agencies, seeking emergency funds to bridge them between programs.

“That’s just a terrible idea,” Oury said. “Those emergency funds are for somebody, for instance, choosing between medication for their kid or paying the rent.”

‘A good start’

Brown said she’s motivated to get off assistance as soon as she can. But for now, she’s not ashamed of it, and she’s proud of herself for seeking help.

Reclining after work Thursday afternoon in a brown, suede couch she purchased for her new apartment, arms crossed around her body and tears in her eyes, Brown reflected on where she’s been and where she wants to go.

“It feels like I accomplished something,” Brown said. “And to see my kids so happy about a house, it just feels really, really good.”

Brown wants to volunteer at the shelter, she said. She hopes to talk with others in the position she was just in, to tell them not to be ashamed of seeking help — and that hopefully it would be there for them, like it was for her.

“I got talked about, about I didn’t have anything, how I was homeless and lived in a homeless shelter. But we all have — everybody in this world — has a struggle. I have no problem… I’m proud to say, ‘Yes, I did come from the shelter. Yes, I am on a voucher. Yes, I cannot do this stuff on my own.’ But everything is in my name, the lease, the bills. I accomplished something, regardless if I’m on a voucher or not.”

Besides other “wraparound” services Brown will receive while she’s going through the transitional housing program, Sanders has said she’ll continue to work with her.

When she was living in Mississippi, Sanders, whom Brown calls “Miss Sheryl,” continued to call and check in on her, Brown said. Sanders helped her carry furniture and boxes in Tuesday, and when the women took few moments to rest, Sanders told Brown how proud she was.

“She won’t move out today and that will be it; we’ll stay in the picture as long as she needs us,” Sanders had said earlier. “She’s super excited, but she’s scared, you know. But she’ll be fine. She really will. There’s no doubt in my mind.”

For the first time in a long time, Brown is able to look beyond the immediate need for a home and has established goals. She wants to get her high school diploma. She likes her job and wants to work toward a Certified Nursing Assistant license. Most of all, she wants to be a homeowner.

“I didn’t think I could accomplish anything, I always thought I had to have a man, always. It turned out I really don’t,” Brown said.

“This right here is just pushing me more. This is just the beginning,” she said of the apartment. “As long as I can keep it up, my future — it’s going to be better. This is a good start.”