City commissioners said Tuesday that concerns are mounting about the city’s lone homeless shelter.
At the commission’s weekly meeting, leaders of the Lawrence Community Shelter confirmed that they’ve been housing about 40 people more than the legal occupancy the city set for the building at 10th and Kentucky streets.
“I’m disappointed,” Mayor Rob Chestnut told shelter leaders. “The fact is, this is a violation of the law, and now we have a liability here that we are aware of.”
The homeless have been flocking to the shelter in greater numbers since a temporary overflow shelter at the First Christian Church downtown was closed last week. Fire officials for the city said the shelter building likely will need an expanded fire sprinkler system and additional exits in its basement to meet basic life and safety codes to house more people.
But commissioners on Tuesday did not order the shelter to stop serving the extra people. Instead, they directed the shelter and city staff to work quickly to come up with temporary solutions that would ease the city’s liability.
“I understand the concerns, but I question whether it is safer for people to be sleeping in doorways and alleys or to be sleeping indoors in a place that is not up to fire code,” Commissioner Mike Dever said. “It is not like they are going to disappear overnight. We need to acknowledge that.”
Shelter director Loring Henderson said he plans to continue to keep the shelter open to the overflow crowds, but said he’s ready to start addressing the needed safety improvements immediately.
“I would think we would have them all done within a month,” Henderson said.
Commissioners, though, also expressed concern about the shelter’s long-term plans. Henderson told commissioners he now believes it is unlikely the shelter will be ready to move into a new space when the operating permit for the existing shelter expires in April.
When commissioners approved the permit more than two years ago, the goal was for the shelter to be in a new space by the time the permit expired. But shelter leaders have had difficulty in finding a suitable site for a new, expanded shelter.
But shelter leaders said they expect to publicly announce a site they are focusing on within the next month.
“We seem to be close. Closer than we‘ve ever been,” said Don Huggins, president of the shelter’s board of directors.
Huggins also said the shelter has struggled with city regulations during the time period. He noted that it took 54 weeks for the city to approve new zoning regulations that would allow the shelter to locate in an industrially zoned area. Without that approval, the shelter was limited in the locations it could pursue.
Some commissioners said they were understanding of the hurdles the site selection has faced, but said they still wanted to see more progress.
“We’re two years into this,” Commissioner Lance Johnson said. “I have to say that some of this could have been taken care of by now. I sit here a little reticent in extending any permit.”
Commissioners heard from several downtown business owners who urged commissioners to find a permanent home for the shelter outside of the downtown area.
Commissioners said they wanted an update in October on the shelter’s timeline to move.