More than 40 people may be turned to the streets this weekend as homeless service leaders struggle to deal with the sudden closing of a downtown overflow homeless shelter.
Leaders with the First Christian Church, 1000 Ky., decided earlier this week to no longer allow the church basement to be used as a temporary homeless shelter, after concerns about liability mounted. Its last night of operation was Friday.
The leader of the Lawrence Community Shelter on Friday put out a call to anyone with a vacant building to step forward to help create a new temporary, overflow shelter. But options were few and far between, Henderson said.
“We feel there are going to be some people on the street pretty quickly,” Henderson said.
Henderson said late Friday afternoon that he was working to avoid that scenario by exploring whether the city would allow him to house up to 40 more people in the Community Shelter’s existing facility. The building currently has an overnight occupancy of 31 people, but Henderson said the shelter was willing to expand the building’s fire sprinkler system if the city would allow more people to be housed. It wasn’t immediately clear if the city was amenable to that idea.
The temporary shelter has been operating in the church’s basement since June 1. It came into existence after The Salvation Army closed its longtime homeless shelter.
First Christian Church’s board of trustees this week decided it could no longer allow the church to be used as a shelter, said Paul Studebaker, chair of the church board. He said a city inspection showed the church basement had several code violations — including the lack of fire sprinklers — that made it unsuitable to house large numbers of people overnight.
Studebaker said the city did not order the church to stop the activity, but the board decided the liability concerns for the church were too great to continue.
“We do feel bad about having to do this,” Studebaker said. “We do feel like we need to be able to take care of these folks, but we also feel like we can’t put the whole city and the church at risk.”
Studebaker said the church would continue to host the Lawrence Interdenominational Nutrition Kitchen, a meal program that serves many homeless people. The church also will continue to participate in Family Promise, a non-profit organization that uses churches across the city to house up to four homeless families for a week at a time.
The temporary shelter has been hosting between 30 to 40 people per night since its opening. It is equipped to handle up to 50 people per night, said Henderson.
The shelter has served as an overflow facility for the Lawrence Community Shelter, which is across the street at 10th and Kentucky. That 31-bed shelter runs at its legal capacity each night.
The closing of the temporary shelter has left homeless individuals concerned about where they’ll next sleep.
“Once I get kicked out, I guess I’m going to be sleeping outside or in somebody’s yard,” said Kevin O’Brien, who has been sleeping at the shelter for about a week. “If they don’t do something, they’ll have 50 people sleeping outside, and it will be a bigger eyesore.”
Anger also was evident among some of the homeless who were in limbo Friday. One man, who declined to give his name, said he had heard talk of staging a mass camp out in front of the Douglas County Courthouse.
“We’d be camping illegally somewhere else anyway,” he said. “I think you’ll see some civil disobedience. I think you’ll see some people just hide.”
O’Brien said city park property was often a popular choice for people to set up camp when space at the shelter has been limited in the past. The city has regulations against camping on park grounds, and have enforced those regulations before.
“I don’t think it is going to work out to have people stay outside,” O’Brien said. “There will be more police activity, and people will be getting more agitated because they are going to be competing for limited bed space.
“I wouldn’t say that people here are on edge right now,” O’Brien said of people at the shelter. “But you can sure feel the tension rising.”
Wesley Dalberg, captain for The Salvation Army’s operations in Lawrence, said his organization has no plans to reopen its shelter. The Salvation Army announced in February that it would close its shelter to pursue other housing programs.
“That decision has been made,” Dalberg said. “We don’t really have the staff to reopen. That option is pretty much gone for us.”
Dalberg said he doesn’t want to see any of the homeless suffer because of a lack of shelter, but he said he hopes the current situation forces community leaders to become more engaged in finding a permanent shelter solution.
“If it becomes more noticeable that there are more homeless people on the streets at night, that should cause all of us to work harder for a solution,” Dalberg said. “We can’t just say we don’t want these people on the streets. The solution isn’t just coming up with another ordinance saying we don’t want them there.”
Henderson’s group previously had proposed that a temporary shelter be set up in a vacant former church building that is connected to the Douglas County Public Works offices at 13th and Massachusetts streets.
County commissioners, though, tabled discussion of that proposal earlier this month, saying they hoped the First Christian Church building could serve as the temporary site.
On Friday, County Commission Chair Nancy Thellman said she wasn’t sure whether the commission would bring that proposal back up for consideration.
“It is certainly something that could come back up,” Thellman said. “But even if it was ultimately chosen, it is not habitable right now. It would not solve the need for shelter in the near term.”
She said the building needs to have asbestos removed, bathrooms repaired and several other issues taken care of before she would be comfortable allowing the building to be used.
Henderson said the Community Shelter also is continuing to look for a new permanent home for its shelter, saying its space at 10th and Kentucky is inadequate. Henderson said he believes the shelter’s board will settle on a site within the next two weeks. But he said any potential site for a new shelter won’t be ready for operation for at least several months.