A public forum on plans for a new homeless shelter on East 23rd Street turned into a rapid-fire listing of objections by neighbors on Thursday night.
A crowd of about 70 people filled the Boys and Girls Club offices in east Lawrence to tell leaders of the Lawrence Community Shelter that they objected to plans to move the shelter to the former site of Don’s Steakhouse, 2176 E. 23rd Street.
No objection was bigger than the build-it-and-they-will-come theory.
“You’ve been kicked out of downtown, or asked to leave downtown, because you haven’t been a good neighbor, and now you are telling us that you’ll be a better neighbor by making your shelter bigger,” said Mark Gwaltney, an owner of Diamond Everley Roofing, which is next door to the proposed site. “By making it bigger we’re just begging others to come to our community.
“I think it is absolutely the wrong way to handle this.”
‘Time to understand’
Shelter director Loring Henderson told a standing-room-only crowd that he did not believe a larger shelter would make the community a magnet for the homeless people in other areas. He also said the proposed site was a good one because it wasn’t immediately adjacent to residences, and that much of the loitering issues at the shelter’s current location in downtown are related to the property being too small and next to a public parking lot.
But mainly Henderson said it will just take more time for residents to learn about the shelter’s operations.
“It was like the conversations we have had so many times with other people who are new to the issues,” Henderson said. “There just needs to be more time to understand there are successes here.”
As part of the meeting, neighbors again asked for more time to consider the proposal. The Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission is scheduled to have a public hearing on a rezoning and special-use permit for the property on Monday. Neighbors asked for the hearing to be delayed by at least a month. Henderson did not commit to ask for a delay.
“I’m not sure we’re going to find a better site than this, and I’m not sure what the additional time will buy us,” said Henderson, who confirmed the shelter is scheduled to close on the property on Dec. 8.
The meeting, though, made it clear neighbors have lots of questions. Among the issues raised:
• Concerns over what will happen to individuals who are turned away from the shelter. Several neighbors expressed concerns that loitering would take place in the neighborhood, and that the Douglas County Fairgrounds would become an unofficial campsite for the homeless. Henderson said he would not turn away individuals at night unless he had another location that they could be taken to. Neighbors, though, questioned where that would be.
• Fears that pedophiles will be housed at the facility. Henderson said it is against shelter policy to house known sexual offenders, but neighbors questioned how effective the shelter’s background checks are in determining whether an individual is on the sexual predator list.
• Objections to the shelter’s policy of allowing people who have been drinking or using drugs to stay at the shelter. In particular, neighbors objected to a shelter policy statement that said if an individual brought alcohol to the site, it would be taken from him or her but then returned to the individual as they left. The shelter’s head of security said that was a sound policy because it stopped individuals from trying to hide alcohol near the shelter, and also it is an important part of treatment to convince addicts to give up alcohol voluntarily rather than taking it from them.
Henderson told the crowd that the shelter does operate drug and alcohol intervention programs and provides counselors for people. He also said residents of the shelter are required to meet with case managers and follow certain rules of conduct while they stay there.
Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commissioners will hear the issues at a meeting that begins at 6:30 p.m. Monday at City Hall. If planning commissioners recommend the site, Lawrence city commissioners could consider giving it final approval in early December.