A proposal to locate a temporary homeless shelter near 13th and Massachusetts streets is beginning to face opposition.
Employees in the Douglas County Public Works Department are voicing safety concerns about the plan, which would use a vacant church sanctuary that is connected to the offices of the county’s public works building at 1242 Mass.
“This is a public building they want to use,” said Linda Brey, an employee of the public works department. “I don’t really think a homeless shelter in a public building mixes well. We are concerned about our safety and the safety of the public that comes in here.”
In April, leaders of the Lawrence Community Shelter applied for a special-use permit that would allow the former church site to house up to 50 people who will no longer have a place to go once The Salvation Army closes its shelter on June 1.
The Community Shelter is out of space at its location at 10th and Kentucky streets. Loring Henderson, executive director of the Community Shelter, said the plan is for the shelter to keep its downtown location open but to temporarily operate an overflow shelter at 13th and Massachusetts until a permanent home for a larger shelter can be found. The temporary shelter could be open for up to two years, he said.
The temporary shelter would operate differently from the current downtown shelter. Henderson said the temporary shelter would be open only from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m., and anybody who has been drinking alcohol will not be allowed in.
“There won’t be all the coming and going that there is at this facility,” Henderson said. “It will not be a drop-in center. My aim is to minimize the visibility of this facility as much as possible.”
But not everyone is so sure.
In addition to public works employees, the leader of the recently renovated Castle Tea Room — which is diagonally across the street from the proposed site — said he thought the location was a poor choice.
Andre Bollaert, executive director of the Castle Tea Room, said the shelter would be near several areas where children play, including South Park and St. John’s Catholic School. The shelter also would be along the main route that many students take to Central Junior High.
County employees said they fear the area will become a hotbed for loitering and the type of disturbances that often happen at the shelter’s current location.
“I can’t see the county conducting business when you have people urinating in the parking lot,” said Rita Fulks, another employee at the public works department. “I don’t have any issues with them putting people in this building, but don’t leave us here.”
The proposal to locate the shelter at the site hasn’t yet been finalized. Both the Douglas County Commission and the Lawrence City Commission must approve the plan before it can happen.
County commissioners, who are involved because the county owns the building, are scheduled to discuss the subject at their meeting next Wednesday night.
“I’m doing my best to keep an open mind about a really difficult topic,” Douglas County Commission Chairwoman Nancy Thellman said when asked about the feasibility of the site.
The City Commission, which is responsible for issuing the land-use permit, likely won’t hear the issue until early July, after the Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission makes a recommendation on the issue.
City commissioners, however, on Tuesday did agree to set aside $78,789 in federal stimulus funding that the city has received to be used on the project. The money would be used to put a fire sprinkler system in the building, upgrade bathrooms and make other renovations to the site, if it wins the necessary approvals.
City commissioners said the fact they’re setting aside the money does not mean they’ve decided to approve the land-use permit for the project.
“It will still have to go through the normal process,” Mayor Rob Chestnut said.
The project has garnered some support. Some members of the East Lawrence Neighborhood Association have said they believe the site is workable, and the principal for nearby St. John’s Catholic School said the facility could work as a temporary location.
“Obviously, security is a huge issue, and there is an interest in making sure it is run properly,” said Pat Newton, principal at St. John’s. “But we understand a community has to come together and work together on issues like this.”
Henderson said he’s committed to making sure the location is only a temporary site. He said he continues to look for a permanent site for an expanded shelter. He said the board is currently focusing on three locations, but he declined to identify any of the potential sites.
“But we’ve decided that we have to decide,” Henderson said.
Henderson said he didn’t have a firm timeline for making a decision, but city commissioners have said they are hopeful a permanent site will be presented to them within the next four months.