The Lawrence Community Shelter is eyeing a big plan that could have big implications for the city.
Shelter leaders announced last week that they are pursuing the purchase of a vacant nursing home in southwest Lawrence in an effort to move and expand the services the shelter now provides at 944 Ky. They will ask Lawrence city commissioners Tuesday night to either give or loan them $50,000 so they can acquire an option to buy the former Lake View Manor Nursing Home at 3015 W. 31st St.
Their plan is to use the 22,000-square-foot building to provide shelter for as many as 100 homeless people, compared to the current shelter's capacity of about 20. The new building also would allow the Community Shelter to have a full-scale meal program.
Moving the shelter to the seven-acre nursing home site would eliminate the ongoing tension between the facility and its downtown Lawrence neighbors, but the project represents a huge financial commitment, as well as raising other questions about the city's homeless services.
The asking price for the nursing home building is $2 million, which would represent only a small part of the financial commitment the shelter is pondering. Additional staffing would be necessary, and the costs of utilities and maintenance would multiply at the new site.
To move forward with its plan, the Community Shelter plans a community fundraising effort, which would be in competition with another fund drive already under way to finance the Salvation Army's homeless facility. The Salvation Army has been working for more than two years to raise funds for a $3.5 million project in East Lawrence. Does a city the size of Lawrence really need two multimillion-dollar homeless facilities?
The Community Shelter and Salvation Army see their missions as very different. The Salvation Army doesn't accept people who are inebriated and wants its new program to serve only people who are seeking to better their situation through work and training. The Community Shelter wants to provide shelter to anyone who needs it and expects that need to rise as the Salvation Army pursues its new mission.
Even given those differences, however, it seems that city officials should be seeking ways to encourage these two groups to cooperate in providing services to the homeless, rather than operate two independent and expensive programs. It's also fair for commissioners to ask whether an expanded Community Shelter also will expand Lawrence's homeless population, creating more pressure on all the services and facilities used by that population.
The city already has increased its funding to hire new case workers to counsel the homeless. History suggests that even though private donors would pick up some of the cost of a new Community Shelter facility, organizers are likely to return to the city requesting additional funding. Given the many other needs facing the city, how much more taxpayer money should go to that cause?
A few months ago the National Homeless Coalition ranked Lawrence as the nation's second meanest city when it comes to the treatment of homeless people. Even given the risk of an unwarranted advance to the top of the Coalition's list, city commissioners should think carefully before encouraging the large expansion plan being considered by the Lawrence Community Shelter.