Downtown is the logical place for a new homeless shelter to be built, the leader of a national homeless organization told city leaders Thursday.
"It needs to be in or near the downtown area," Michael Stoops, the acting national director of the Coalition on Homelessness told the city's Community Commission on Homelessness. "Moving out to residential areas is fraught with problems. Even moving out to industrial areas is a problem because you get resistance from businesses."
Members of the city's task force on homelessness, though, weren't sure they agreed. Rick Marquez, who is on the task force and also is the director of Downtown Lawrence Inc., said he thought Lawrence's downtown was different from many others.
"I can understand a lot of communities having shelters downtown because the service providers are located downtown," Marquez said, talking about places such as Social and Rehabilitation Services offices, mental health agencies and other groups that could provide help to the homeless population. "That's not the case here. A lot of downtowns don't have the amount of retail we have. I'm not sure how well a new shelter would work downtown."
Helen Hartnett, who is chairwoman of the city's task force, said she had mixed emotions on the issue. She said if there was an existing building in another part of the community that could work as a shelter, it should be examined. But she said there were real risks of placing a shelter outside of downtown, which has been home to the Salvation Army shelter and the Lawrence Community Shelter for a number of years.
"They (the homeless) may not follow us if we move it out of downtown," Hartnett said.
Specific plans to replace the Lawrence Community Shelter have not been developed. But a report prepared in June 2005 by the task force recommended that a 15,000-square-foot emergency services shelter be built. The report estimated such a facility would cost about $2.5 million.
Some task force members on Thursday expressed disappointment that more hadn't been done by city commissioners to tackle the shelter issue. The task force earlier this year had asked the commission to spend $50,000 to secure an option to purchase the former Lake View Nursing Home in southwest Lawrence. The task force wanted to explore whether the vacant nursing home could be used for a shelter. City commissioners, though, did not approve the request after neighbors from the area objected.
"Anytime the neighborhood shows up, the commission just buckles on the issue," said Robert Mosely, a member of the task force. "Personally, I feel the City Commission is just leaning toward the affluent in the community."
Mayor Mike Amyx, though, said he thought the City Commission had done a lot of work on the homeless issue. The city is now funding - about $200,000 per year - four case workers who do outreach work with the homeless. The commission also resisted calls by some neighbors to revoke the operating permit for the Lawrence Community Shelter.
Amyx said the community now needs to have a discussion about where plans for a new shelter fit into the community's goals.
"We have to make some decisions about what the priorities of the community are going to be," Amyx said. "Are we going to do a library, are we going to focus on infrastructure improvements, will we do a homeless shelter? There are lots of issues for us to decide."
All the talk of a new homeless shelter is in addition to plans by the Salvation Army to build a new facility in East Lawrence that would primarily serve families who are homeless.
Stoops' organization is the one that earlier this year ranked Lawrence as the second-meanest city in the country toward the homeless. On Thursday he said he wasn't ready to change that ranking because the city still has ordinances that outlaw camping on some public property and outlaws aggressive panhandling. He has said those ordinances attempt to "criminalize" being homeless.