Local leaders hear how affordable housing trust fund could work in Topeka

February 15, 2017. Topeka Capital-Journal.

A group of about 35 people representing local churches, businesses and government entities listened to a national expert on affordable housing trust funds describe how such an initiative might work in the capital city during a breakfast meeting Wednesday in downtown Topeka.

Michael Anderson, director of the Housing Trust Fund Project for the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Community Change, told attendees affordable housing trust funds already were operational in some 770 communities across the U.S. and were making it possible for low-income people in those cities to live in their own homes.

JUMP event takes positive approach to change

May 12, 2015. The Topeka Capitol-Journal.

The positivity displayed at a Topeka Justice Unity and Ministry Project assembly Tuesday night was in stark contrast to the negative tone of last year’s assembly.

The second JUMP Nehemiah Action Assembly, which took place at the Ramada Hotel and Convention Center, focused on expanding supported employment for people with mental illness in Shawnee County.

Shawnee County Commissioners Shelly Buhler and Kevin Cook attended the assembly. Councilman Bob Archer didn’t attend, said Rev. Roger Neufeld Smith, of Southern Hills Mennonite Church.

“We are sad and disappointed about that,” Smith said.

The 2014 Nehemiah Action Assembly, focused on closing the achievement gaps of at-risk students by adding more Communities in Schools site coordinators.

During the assembly, Julie Ford, superintendent for Topeka Unified School District 501, was questioned. The meeting took a negative tone and had several tense moments during the question-and-answer session, according to previous Topeka Capital-Journal articles.

JUMP co-chairmen Rev. Raymond Berry, of the Gethsemane Church of God in Christ in Topeka, and Doug Penner, of Southern Hills, said the organization, formed locally in 2012, learned from last year’s assembly.

The organization intended to take the commissioners’ responses seriously and have a congenial and partner-like atmosphere, Penner said.

“Tonight we are trying to bring to light the plight of the seriously mental ill,” Berry said.

Organizers said they expected between 1,000 and 1,500 to attend the assembly.

JUMP consists of 18 Shawnee County churches whose goal is to “make systemic impacts to address the root causes of injustices in Topeka,” the JUMP website states.

Before the start of the meeting, Buhler said she was a little apprehensive about the event because of last year’s assembly. However, the question-and-answer session went smoothly.

When asked whether they agreed the “broken mental health system has resulted in an overuse of expensive community services, like the county jail and hospital emergency rooms, and is a barrier to people with serious mental illness achieving recovery,” both commissioners answered yes.

While Buhler agreed, she said she hesitated to say the system is broken because there are a lot of people working on mental health issues.

Buhler drew applause from the crowd when she said the county is a very small piece of the picture, and there are other steps that can be taken, such as Medicaid expansion.

Cook asked the crowd and ministers gathered at the assembly whether they would make supported employment for people with mental illness a priority and mission in their churches.

“Our call is to take care of our brothers and sisters,” Cook said.

JUMP is asking the county commission to set aside $100,000 each year to add four more employment specialists, which would serve 100 people with mental illness through Valeo Behavioral Health Care’s employment program.

The two commissioners agreed to seriously consider a request for the additional funding to support the expansion and to meet with JUMP in 90 days to speak about the issue.

Lawrence Justice Matters gathering produces little drama, much agreement

May 7, 2015. Lawrence Journal-World.

Any tension or disagreement that was expected at Justice Matters’ Nehemiah Action Assembly never showed Thursday night.

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.”