Ending Chronic Homelessness

In the fall of 2020, Justice Matters became increasingly concerned about the number of people who would spend the winter months without shelter. After some digging, the homelessness committee learned that there would be around 130 people in Lawrence spending the winter unsheltered. In response, the committee pushed the city to fund a hotel shelter to keep these folks safe from the cold and COVID. The number of people who received services at this shelter was staggering. From December 23rd when it opened to March 5th when it closed, over 300 unique individuals had received services. This shelter saved lives, but it is not a long-term solution. We need to end chronic homelessness in Lawrence for good.


Justice Matters advocated for Lawrence and Douglas County to adopt Built for Zero, a proven model that has brought the number of people experiencing homelessness to “functional zero” in 17 cities across the United States. The concept of functional zero is explained here. At our Action Assembly in May 2021, Justice Matters got a commitment from our Mayor and County Commission Chair to end chronic homelessness using the Built for Zero model. That same month, the City and County adopted a joint resolution to become a Built for Zero community and began convening regular planning meetings.


There are several key tenets that make Built for Zero successful. For one, all local service providers must work together to maintain a “by-name list” with accurate information on each person experiencing homelessness. This list is constantly updated as people move in and out of homelessness.  Each person has unique needs that contribute to their homeless situation- they might need treatment for mental illness, or medical care, or addiction treatment- just to name a few. All of the service providers work together to find each person the best services based upon their unique needs. This is called case conferencing. With all providers working together using this method, homelessness becomes rare overall and brief when it occurs. Learn more about Built for Zero here.


Bergen County, NJ, with a population of 932,000 people, ended veteran and chronic homelessness using the Built for Zero model under the leadership of Julia Orlando, who now works as a consultant for other communities seeking to ending homelessness. Justice Matters sought out Julia's support and advocated for a consulting contract that would allow her to work directly with Lawrence/Douglas County leaders. With the help of allies at the Kansas Department of Aging & Disabilities, there is now a state-wide contract for Julia to support communities across Kansas in reaching functional zero.


At our May 2023 Action Assembly, we pushed City & County leaders to take advantage of Julia Orlando's expertise and to ensure that our community's plan to end chronic homelessness includes all the key tenets of Built for Zero. We are excited about the Douglas County Housing & Homelessness 5-Year Strategic Plan which sets a deadline to reach functional zero chronic homelessness by 2028, and we will continue to follow up with our elected officials and decision-makers to ensure that they see the plan through — because everyone in our community should have a place to call home.