May 7, 2015. Lawrence Journal-World.
Any tension or disagreement that was expected at Justice Matters’ Nehemiah Action Assembly never showed Thursday night.
Religious leaders from the Lawrence area asked officials whether they supported a series of proposals in front of an estimated audience of 1,600 people at the Lied Center on Kansas University’s campus, and every time the officials said yes.
Lawrence Mayor Jeremy Farmer said he was committed to creating an affordable housing trust fund that would supply local housing agencies with enough resources to eliminate waiting lists, “hopefully much, much before 2019.” Vice-Mayor Leslie Soden agreed to the same.
Justice Matters is a coalition of 21 local religious organizations that have set out to help tackle justice issues. After announcing the group’s formation last fall, members spent several months researching how to solve gaps in affordable housing and mental health care.
The purpose of the Nehemiah Action Assembly was to present those solutions and ask local officials for a clear stance on them, organizers said. A minimum number of city and county commissioners were able to attend after both bodies determined there could be open meetings law violations if a majority of members attended.
The event featured:
• All of the officials that appeared on stage Thursday — Farmer, Soden, Douglas County Commissioner Mike Gaughan, Lawrence Police Chief Tarik Khatib and Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center CEO David Johnson — agreeing to forming and sitting on a consortium that would create a comprehensive plan to coordinate improved mental health care.
• Khatib agreeing that all Lawrence police officers and “relevant staff” would receive instruction in Crisis Intervention Training by Jan. 1, 2018. The training informs officers how to deal with individuals experiencing mental health crises. Khatib said in April the training was already planned to be introduced to the force this September.
• Gaughan agreeing to be Justice Matters’ “champion for a crisis stabilization center” that would help divert non-violent, mentally ill individuals away from the county jail and also treat those who voluntarily arrive there.
Farmer said affordable housing is an issue he focused on well before Justice Matters approached him with the trust fund idea. Earlier this year, Farmer said he took a trip to Austin, Texas, to tour affordable housing the city offers to at-risk populations, including the formerly homeless and foster program graduates. Farmer said he was “blown away” by what he saw and had city staff begin researching affordable housing options.
“I’m willing to do whatever it takes for people in our community to step up and to help folks have a better, more prosperous life,” Farmer said. “I’m committed to creating an affordable housing trust fund.”
Farmer said after the assembly Thursday that he did not know how the goal would be achieved. Farmer said that first, “community conversations” needed to begin on the topic, followed by “planning” and “strategy.”
“We have to deal with the ‘what’ first — the ‘how’ comes second,” Farmer said. “There are varying opinions on the ‘how.’ We have many priorities as a city on public safety, but social services in this community are just as high on the list.”
Some controversy around the nature of the Nehemiah Action Assembly flared up earlier this week after members of the Douglas County Commission expressed uneasiness about making certain commitments at an informal hearing.
The county is already researching whether it needs to build a crisis stabilization center like the one Justice Matters described — as well as expand its county jail to combat rising inmate populations.
Commissioner Jim Flory said it was his understanding that officials would be asked at the event to commit to building a crisis center and separate that project from the jail expansion, which are being treated as one enterprise. All members of the commission said they could not make those commitments, at least at this time.
Other events titled the “Nehemiah Action Assembly” hosted by groups related to Justice Matters across the country, including one in Topeka, have proven confrontational and tense.
However, no official was asked to make those specific commitments Thursday. The evening did not feature any conflict.
“It went awesome. It went amazing,” Gaughan said after the event. “It’s a reflection of Lawrence and Douglas County, the ambition people have.”