For a long time now, the corner of 10th and Kentucky streets has been unlike any other in Downtown Lawrence.
On one side of 10th Street has been the Lawrence Community Shelter. On the other side, the Lawrence Interdenominational Nutrition Kitchen — known to the community simply as LINK.
Depending on your viewpoint, it has been the corner of compassion in this city, or the intersection of porch-sitters and post-leaners that mars downtown’s postcard image.
Now, as the Community Shelter pursues a new site on the eastern edge of Lawrence, the chances of that corner changing are higher than ever before. Just exactly how much, though, is still as unpredictable as the soup kitchen’s menu.
“I think there are so many changes that could be coming, but I don’t know how it will all sort out yet,” said Loring Henderson, director of the shelter.
Future of free food
Change No. 1, Henderson hopes, is a new site for the shelter. But even that is not certain. Shelter leaders will go before city commissioners April 13 seeking approval to move the shelter to a warehouse building adjacent to the Douglas County Jail, 3601 E. 25th St. The project has won approval from the Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission, but neighbors have opposed the project.
Henderson has said the new shelter would serve three meals per day for shelter guests. That has created questions about whether LINK would continue to operate its food program, which provides a free lunch to anyone in need four days per week.
Thus far, LINK leaders are confident their program will continue.
“The board has not actually voted on it yet, but I believe the feeling is that there still will be a need for people who can’t get out to that shelter on the eastern edge of town,” said Katie Studebaker, president of the LINK board. “I’m pretty confident we’re going to stay right where we are.”
In fact, the shelter and its meal program won’t be open to everyone. Unlike the current shelter, Henderson said the new facility would not include a drop-in center. In other words, the only people allowed to be in the shelter will be people signed up for programs and who are overnight guests.
Greg Moore, coordinator for LINK, said that will leave plenty of people still in need of LINK’s services. LINK currently serves about 110 to 150 people per day. The shelter, at most, sleeps about 70 people.
“Even people who have a place to live are hurting too, these days,” said Moore, who said LINK serves several senior citizens, KU students and some downtown employees.
Social service providers also are honest in saying there’s another group that likely will remain in downtown and in search of free food — homeless campers.
Diana Brauer — coordinator for the three meals per week The Salvation Army serves — said she estimates there are 25 to 30 homeless campers who come to The Salvation Army’s meal site. Like LINK, Brauer believes The Salvation Army will continue its feeding program even if the shelter moves out of downtown.
“In my opinion, I think the new shelter will be for people who want to go from homeless to having a home,” she said. “But some of these people downtown don’t care if they ever have a home, I think. They live the way they live. It is almost a preference. I think they’ll stay downtown.”
A new campaign
That’s not exactly the news that downtown merchants want to hear. But they aren’t denying that it may be the future.
Merchants have long been concerned about loitering and panhandling issues downtown. Jane Pennington, director of Downtown Lawrence Inc., said her members hope a relocated shelter will improve the environment downtown, but they don’t expect it to solve all their concerns.
“The nature of panhandling is you need foot traffic, and downtown will still have that,” Pennington said.
But Pennington said downtown merchants won’t try to solve the problem by urging the closure of LINK or other meal programs.
“We don’t have any problem with the feeding programs,” she said. “If somebody came in and wanted to establish a new drop-in center, I think we would have a problem with that.”
Instead, Pennington said her group is hopeful the city will launch a new marketing campaign aimed at educating the public that there are better ways to help the homeless than by giving to panhandlers.
Atlanta has recently adopted such a campaign that has started to win some praise.
“We think our best strategy is to create a communications campaign that helps people realize there are ways to redirect their donations to agencies that actually are serving the homeless,” Pennington said.
Downtown Lawrence Inc. recently sent a letter to city commissioners asking them to study the creation of a new marketing campaign.
Back at the Community Shelter, Henderson tries to stay focused on what he hopes will be his new site. That will involve plenty of changes in itself.
Due to its location on the edge of the city, it will be highly dependent on a new public transit route that is expected to be created if the shelter wins approval.
That and new rules are expected to change the mix of people at the new shelter, Henderson said.
“We want to focus on getting people out of homelessness,” Henderson said. “We want to separate ourselves from the loitering aspect of some of the folks who are around the drop-in center. We want people to understand that the shelter is a place for getting a job, getting help and a place to be serious about getting out of homelessness.”
But Henderson knows some will not take to it. Will they stay downtown? He’s not sure.
“What I do know is that most of our guests are from Douglas County,” Henderson said. “They won’t just say, ‘Well, we’re going to go back somewhere else.’ They don’t have another place to go.”