Johnson County Commission approves nearly $4 million grant for homelessness services

Jill Toyoshiba/jtoyoshiba@kcstar.com

The Johnson County Commission voted Thursday to approve nearly $4 million in federal funding to go toward services to help people experiencing homelessness and prevention efforts.

Commissioners voted 5-1 to accept a grant of about $3.97 million from the American Rescue Plan to help people experiencing or at risk of homelessness, which the county will have 10 years to spend. Commissioner Charlotte O’Hara voted against the measure, and Commissioner Janée Hanzlick was absent.

For the last decade, Rita Carr, the director of community planning with United Community Services, or UCS, of Johnson County, said the number of people experiencing homelessness, staying outdoors or living in their cars has risen.

The organization’s 2022 Point in Time count found 212 people experiencing homelessness countywide, including 45 people who didn’t have shelter. Experts caution that those numbers are conservative estimates, as the organization conducts the count on one night toward the end of January each year.

County officials could consider putting the grant money toward the area’s first non-congregate shelter.

Currently, there are few shelter options for people experiencing homelessness in Johnson County. Project 1020 is the county’s only emergency winter shelter for single adults. The nonprofit, which again opened its doors last week for the winter season, has filled its 30 beds each night so far, said founder Barb McEver.

Other organizations, like Salvation Army and Johnson County Interfaith Hospitality Network, provide shelter beds for families, and Safehome offers shelter for domestic violence victims.

Community leaders like Tim Suttle, a pastor and founder of the Good Faith Network, told commissioners there is a need not only for a year-round shelter, but also a comprehensive plan that takes into account future needs and strategies to end chronic homelessness in the area.

“A shelter will likely be a crucial part of a strategy like this, moving from managing to ending homelessness,” Suttle said. “But a shelter alone won’t end homelessness.”

County staff emphasized that, while the money must be used toward the homeless population or people at risk of homelessness, no specific projects will be determined until a needs assessment is conducted.

Commissioner O’Hara, who made the lone vote against accepting the grant money, said she worried accepting federal dollars and agreeing to certain regulations would lead to changes in rezoning laws and a loss of “local control.”

Accepting the money, Commissioner Becky Fast said, fell within housing goals that the commission approved, which included addressing homelessness as one of its priorities.

“This is right in line with the priorities of what the community wants, what our first UCS data stated, what our subcommittee brought forth, what this commission adopted,” Fast said. “I don’t see this out of line at all.”