ROBERT PIERCE • Leader & Times
By definition, non-profit agencies are not designed to make money, but at the same time, they need funding to operate and pay bills.
In 2021, for the first time in a few years, Liberal’s Stepping Stone Shelter was denied an Emergency Solutions Grant from the Kansas Housing Resources Corporation.
This year, the shelter was again turned down for the grant, and that has left shelter officials and community members searching for answers to funding SSS.
Leaders with the shelter met last week with the Seward County Commission to start fixing the problem, and Stepping Stone Board President Ty Lewick said the shelter is hurting.
“We usually get funded by grants and donations from churches and individuals and businesses throughout the community,” he said. “We had applied for an Emergency Solutions Grant through the KHRC. Unfortunately, we just learned we did not get that.”
That grant would have funded the shelter around $100,000, and Lewick said this has left Stepping Stone officials scrambling to keep doors open.
“We provide services to anyone in the surrounding communities fallen on hard times,” he said. “We currently have 18 residents we are putting through our 90-day program where we start out getting them IDs, helping them find jobs, getting a budget set up and reintegrating them back into the community.”
Lewick did say, though, some local churches have stepped up, and a meal train has been created, which he said is a tremendous help in feeding SSS residents and others in the community.
“We are currently strapped for cash,” he said. “We do have two ladies who are helping us with grants we are working on. Unfortunately, the grants are due now, but we won’t be seeing if we get awarded those grants. They won’t come until December, January, February.”
Stepping Stone Director Lori Plante said some homeless people have taken to sleeping in cars and parks.
“This is why we need this,” she said. “We don’t have the money right now to take in everyone.”
SSS Case Manager Erin Burton said without funding, more people will be seen sleeping in their cars in various places around town.
“It truly is crunch time,” she said.
At the end of October, Liberal’s Friends Church is hosting its annual Pumpkin Festival, with proceeds going to Stepping Stone, but Burton said she is unsure if the shelter can operate efficiently until then.
“It’s very important,” she said. “It doesn’t look like it’s a huge issue because we do house them. You might see one or two sleeping in the park here or there, but we don’t only serve Liberal. We serve the Panhandle. We have the police, and people get sentenced from corrections to the shelter. That’s their only option if they were passing through town. They got in trouble here, and they’re on corrections here, they are sentenced to the shelter.”
Burton added she is not sure what could be done if this option was not available.
“We have Compass Behavioral Health in Dodge and Garden,” she said. “Sometimes, we house their people. We have Adult Protective Services that have certain cases that come to us. We are very needed.”
Burton said at this time, Stepping Stone can house up to 40 people.
“There’s been three of us running for the past three months for sure,” she said. “We have a resident who knows the rules, knows our direct cell phone numbers. I don’t live very far from the shelter, so I’m able to go if it’s an emergency. The shelter is very needed, and we don’t want to see it close. That’s the worst case scenario, but also a very realistic thing possibility now.”
Commissioner Presephoni Fuller said funding from the county’s American Rescue Plan Act money had been allocated to purchase the shelter’s newest building at 310 N. Lincoln Ave.
“A lot of citizens don’t understand that was just to pay for the building,” she said. “It’s not the operational budget. In addition, you’ve also got half a million dollars in state funding to help fortify that building and get everything that building needs. None of that goes towards the operating budget. You also had the old Stepping Stone you sold to put some bandaids on until you can get some more assistance.”
Fuller said SSS officials need assistance shuffling the deck of cards they have been dealt.
“I don’t want you to have a target on your back about what’s going on with the shelter,” she said.
Plante said Stepping Stone has had some incredible support, including from Liberal Area Coalition for Families Director Sarah Mersdorf-Foreman.
“She’s done so much for us,” Plante said. “She helped us out with food. It’s been incredible. We have a new Facebook page set up. We’ve set up PayPal and Venmo. We’re working on a letter to put out to the community and a pledge letter. We’re trying to get that out as fast as we can.”
Commission Vice Chair Tammy Sutherland-Abbott asked shelter officials how they could not have foreseen SSS’s current situation.
“How did you not know you were going to need money?” she said. “You say you just have enough for a little bit. You’re already having to have assistance for your food, for your soup kitchen. How did you not foresee this if you’re running it as a business?”
Plante was hired as shelter director earlier this year, and Burton said since then, she and Plante have been learning a lot.
“We learned recently non-profits in general are individually funded, and 15 percent comes from business and churches, local organizations,” Burton said. “The remaining comes from grants. Our previous director had it backwards, so we were counting on this grant.”
Burton said everyone at Stepping Stone has been trying to address what Sutherland-Abbott said they should have seen coming.
“We didn’t know what to do honestly,” Burton said. “We saw it coming, and we weren’t sure where to go. We weren’t sure who to ask. We reached out to the people we knew to reach out to.”
Along with Mersdorf-Foreman, Burton said SSS is partnering with Catholic Charities, and shelter leaders have met with KJIL’s Chayli Duerson to help with the situation.
“We’ve been having board meetings to discuss what the plan of action is,” Burton said.
At the start of summer 2023, Lewick said shelter officials looked at the budget for its previous location at 1015 N. Washington Ave.
“It was not two story, but it was still fairly substantial,” he said. “We were figuring the utility costs would be about the same. Last year, they almost tripled. We were not expecting that building to need as much air conditioning as it does. When we refurbished everything, one thing we discovered after all of that was done is the air conditioning units on the second floor were wired wrong or wired to the old system that was no longer in place, and we couldn’t get the air conditioner shut off. They ran 24/7.”
Lewick said this means if units are shut off to save money, air conditioning is lost for residents on the second floor.
“We have one of our contractors who has donated all of his time to us lately,” he said. “He went through the building, figured out what was wrong, where the wires were going, got them unhooked, rewired. Going forward, that should not be as much of an issue.”
At the end of the build for the new shelter, Lewick said there a lot of cost overruns SSS leaders had planned on.
“That was a big chunk of money we were counting on to use to operate and get us going,” he said. “I don’t remember the exact number, but we took a humongous portion of that money to pay for overrun costs. It was not in the original budget. Change orders were not done properly. Nobody in the process had ever done a project this big, and things were not done correctly. We had to use a big portion of that money.”
Sutherland-Abbott then asked if there was a business plan going forward.
“Even though it’s a non-profit, your funding comes differently,” she said. “You still have to run it like a business. Do you have a plan of what you’re going to do going forward so six months, you’re not back in the same situation or even four months?”
Lewick said no plan is currently in place with shelter officials working to catch up on expenses.
“Right now, we have just been trying to keep the doors open,” he said.
Liberal City Manager Rusty Varnado was at last week’s meeting, and he said what he has seen is a catastrophic mismanagement of SSS from a board and executive perspective.
“I’m not going to cast the blame on Lori or Erin,” he said. “The mayor and I walked through today. We walked through the significant issues that are there. What he and I saw is completely unacceptable. I do believe they were handed a loaded deck.”
Varnado said there are significant repairs that need to be made to the facility, and the city is prepared to match, up to its spending limit, what is deemed an acceptable number.
“What we cannot do is allow the doors to close at Stepping Stone,” he said. “If those doors close, we go from having three people sleeping on our park benches to 40. That completely squashes every ounce of economic development, economic growth, business development, community development we’ve been trying to build for the last almost 24 months from my commission and eight months of you guys being seated.”
Varnado said there is no way the shelter should be relying on grants for the bulk of its funding.
“This is a holistic problem that requires a holistic solution,” he said. “The city is willing to do its part, but we also need the Ministerial Alliance. We need the LACF. We need mental health support. We need the food banks. We need a lot of other help to achieve some level of stability for that facility in order to continue to help the families and the children who go through our community who remain homeless or unhoused, whether it’s their fault or not.”
Varnado said the simple fact is a problem exists, and Stepping Stone leaders have a bridge to a solution the city is willing to support.
“We absolutely cannot have 40 to 60 people sleeping in our park benches,” he said.
Varnado said, however, a $50,000 check would not be cut to Stepping Stone.
“There’ll be measured and evaluated expenses,” he said. “They’ll be paid as needed. We need an actionable plan to move forward for sustainable growth and to maintain this facility long term.”
Sutherland-Abbott asked who would be overseeing that plan moving forward.
“There has to be some accountability for how it’s run,” she said. “It sounds like some guidance needs to be given.”
Varnado said if the situation does not improve, the city and the county may have to absorb responsibility for the shelter.
“The service that is provided and the impacts that are facilitated by it are too important for us to allow it to be cavalier,” he said.
Burton said costs have been cut as much as possible, but she did add the shelter has not had an audit done since 2011.
Fuller, who had previously served on the SSS board, said an emergency situation exists at this time.
“I want the citizens of our county to know you inherited something and we are coming alongside you to help it for the sake of our community and to pull this all together,” she said. “You can’t run this agency by yourself. You need the arms of some other folks coming around you.”
With Administrator April Warden absent from last week’s meeting, County Counsel Nathan Foreman cautioned commissioners about doing anything at this time.
“You guys don’t have this budgeted for this year, and without the county administrator here to see what fund this would come out of, I’m a little bit hesitant recommending that this is something you take action on,” Foreman said.
At the same time, from a legal perspective, Foreman said any assistance needs to be attached to something in the county’s budget.
“I don’t know what that exactly is at this point,” he said. “I talked to the county administrator when I found out about this, communicated with her saying what fund would this come out of? She said she didn’t know. She’d have to look. I think there’s some things that need to come together before you look at doing this”
Varnado said the city has some flexibility in its Fiscal Year 2023 budget to fund an immediate need.
“The city is requesting a partnership as we move forward through the rest of ’23,” he said.
Sutherland-Abbott suggested tabling the item until the board’s Oct. 2 meeting until Foreman and Warden have had time to review it.
County Clerk Stacia Long has administered the ESG grant since 1998, and she said recent applications have included issues with policies on state requirements. She also said there was miscommunication with former shelter director Bambi Parker, leading to applications not being approved.
“That was several years ago, and it was never approved again,” Long said. “It was never pursued again is what I understood. It was a reimbursement grant, and they relied on it heavily. It was done as a reimbursement. They got the money after the fact through me, and I would turn it into the state once all of the appropriate receipts were given. I would highly recommend that get pursued again because it’s a great opportunity.”
Commissioners voted unanimously to table the item. Fuller said work is being done to help Stepping Stone.
“It’s not our desire to see that closed because it will be problematic,” she said. “We’re not casting blame on anyone. We just need to get it fixed, and we’re working towards that.”