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Tuesday, June 14, 2005

How much caring?

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Lawrence is a caring community, but we may not be ready for the price tag attached to recommendations by the city's task force on homelessness.

"Holy Moley," was City Commissioner Mike Amyx's initial reaction when he saw a city task force report calling for the city to raise $4.7 million in city, federal and private money for homeless services over the next three years.

That probably summed up the feelings of many local residents.

Plans put forward by the city's Task Force on Homeless Services include a new $2.5 million homeless shelter to serve the estimated 150 to 200 homeless people who regularly inhabit Lawrence. Although task force members were quick to say that much of the $4.7 million would come from private donations and federal grants, they also estimated they would need about $500,000 a year from the city to pay for new services such as case managers and mental health professionals to work with homeless individuals.

That's still a chunk of change in an already tight city budget. One suggestion, put forward by Commissioner Mike Rundle, is to use a portion of the city's sales tax income to fund homeless services. About $800,000 of sales tax money is expected to become available over the next two years as the city pays off bonds that financed some major recreation projects.

Voters were told when they approved the 1-cent county-wide tax that the city would use its share for recreation projects, and city commissioners had discussed dedicating any money that became available to new recreation programs or after-school programs.

Lawrence is a compassionate community, but do we really want money that could have been used to nurture our young people through recreation and after-school programs diverted to finance a new homeless shelter? It's also fair to wonder how much the need for homeless services in Lawrence will increase in the coming years and how increased services may actually contribute to increased need. It might not be long before the city is asked to support an even larger program for homeless individuals. In light of all the many needs in Lawrence, what priority should be placed on this idea?

Various programs envisioned by the task force are aimed at providing help to people with mental illness and working to connect homeless people with jobs in the community. Rather than simply dedicating tax revenue to the cause, perhaps the city should contribute money in the form of wages to homeless people who are willing and able to work in parks and other public facilities.

Many local residents want to help those among us who, for whatever reason, find themselves homeless, but there are some real questions about how attractive we should make our city to homeless people who have little or no connection or commitment to Lawrence. Many people would say it's time to draw the line when we start taking tax support away from such programs as parks, recreation and after-school programs.

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