If city commissioners want to support a program that allows churches to serve as temporary shelters for homeless families, they likely will have to open the door for other types of homeless shelters to locate in neighborhoods as well.
City attorneys who have reviewed a proposed ordinance regulating homeless shelters have said the ordinance likely would run into legal problems, unless the city removes some restrictions it places on churches.
“I think it is fair to say the legal department has some concerns,” said Scott McCullough, the city’s director of planning and neighborhood resources.
At issue is a proposed ordinance that was designed to accommodate a new non-profit project — Family Promise — that allows churches to temporarily serve as overnight shelters for families with children. The ordinance gives churches the ability to serve as temporary shelters for up to 15 days per quarter, as long as they serve only homeless families with children.
City attorneys now believe that provision may not pass legal muster. Instead, any new city ordinance would need to allow churches to serve any type of homeless individual they see fit to serve. The city can continue to limit the amount of time a church can serve as a shelter site and limit how many people can be housed, city attorneys think.
The Family Promise program has not expressed a desire to start serving a broader range of homeless individuals. But if the city is forced to remove the restrictions on how churches can operate shelters, that theoretically would allow churches to serve as temporary overflow shelters for The Salvation Army or the Lawrence Community Shelter.
Neighborhood leaders will get their first look at the possible changes at a meeting Wednesday. City staff members will host a public meeting at 6 p.m. Wednesday at City Hall, Sixth and Massachusetts streets. City commissioners are expected to consider the changes at their meeting on Feb. 24.
The city’s legal staff said there are other issues with the proposed ordinance. Those include:
• A compromise to allow churches to serve as temporary homeless shelters without going through the special use permit process is legally problematic. The proposed ordinance — which commissioners put on hold in October — contemplated that churches would hold neighborhood meetings, would submit a management plan to city administrators, and would register their use with the city’s planning office. But the churches would not have to go through the sometimes expensive and sometimes politically difficult special use permit process.
Upon further review, city attorneys said the city needs to require churches to go through the special use permit process, or decide that churches have an automatic right to serve as temporary shelters without any city approval.
Neighborhood groups previously have urged the city to require churches to go through the special use permit process. Leaders with Family Promise have opposed that idea, saying it could be too costly.
• The current city code requires churches that serve as temporary shelters to have fire sprinklers and fire alarms. City commissioners must decide whether the code should be changed to provide church shelters an exemption. The city’s Fire Code Board of Appeals already has studied the issue and is recommending that church shelters be required to have fire sprinklers.
Joe Reitz, president of Lawrence’s Family Promise operations, said his group will fight the fire sprinkler requirement because it would be too costly for many churches.
“We’re not hotels,” Reitz said. “We shouldn’t be held to hotel standards. And I don’t think that will happen. I think sensible people will be sensible about this. The people we are serving now are better off here with us than sleeping in their cars.”
Despite the city not yet approving any ordinances, the Family Promise program currently is operating in 13 churches across the city. One church per week provides shelter for up to four families.
The city acknowledges the program currently is operating without proper city approvals, but has not taken any enforcement action against the group. McCullough said that would continue to be the city’s position. He said it would not be a wise use of staff time to pursue enforcement action against the group, since the City Commission is poised to pass a new ordinance that would allow the activity. He also said his office has not received neighborhood complaints about the program.