A close vote on the future of Lawrence’s homeless shelter is shaping up at Lawrence City Hall.
A proposal to locate the Lawrence Community Shelter in a warehouse near the Douglas County Jail in eastern Lawrence now must receive at least four of the five votes on the City Commission in order to proceed, after neighbors filed a legal protest petition against the plans.
Already, one commissioner is expressing serious concerns about whether he’ll be able to support the project — which would establish the shelter at 3701 Franklin Park Circle — when commissioners debate it at their Tuesday meeting.
“What I’ve seen, I’ve not been impressed with,” Commissioner Lance Johnson said. “I’m not in the business of running a shelter, so it is hard for me to micromanage it. But I’m not seeing, in what is proposed, anything that gives me confidence that we’re giving people a hand up versus a permanent hand out.”
Little margin for error
That may leave the shelter’s proposal with a razor-thin margin for error.
Commissioner Mike Amyx also is seen by many as a swing vote on the issue. He said Friday afternoon that he still had questions he wanted answered and did not rule out deferring a vote on the proposal.
“If I feel like we need to put this into a special study session to get more information, I will seek to do that,” Amyx said.
Questions largely were focusing on the shelter’s management plan, and in particular, how long a shelter guest can stay at the facility without enrolling in a formal program designed to end their homelessness.
The proposed management plan calls for guests to have a case manager within 72 hours of arriving at the shelter, but they have up to 90 days to begin participating in a shelter program.
“I think that is something that is way too long,” Amyx said.
Shelter director Loring Henderson said most guests are expected to be in a program before the 90-period, but that sometimes it takes that long to evaluate an individual’s situation. Now, Henderson is trying to assure commissioners that the shelter will look and feel much different from the current facility at 10th and Kentucky, which would be closed if the new shelter becomes operational.
“It will be calmer and quieter and a lot more focused,” Henderson said. “It will be a shelter. It won’t be all things to all people.”
Unlike the current facility, the new shelter would not operate as a drop-in center. The new shelter would not allow anyone in the shelter during the day, unless they also are registered as a night-time guest of the shelter.
But that change has sparked speculation in the community that Henderson or members of his organization will try to operate a drop-in center elsewhere. Henderson said Friday that was not the case.
“The answer to that question is no,” Henderson said about having any interest in operating a drop-in center.
The issue is expected to draw a crowd to Tuesday evening’s meeting. Two of the larger groups in Lawrence have taken different positions on the issue. Downtown merchants have been lobbying commissioners to approve the proposal. Several developers have been lobbying commissioners to reject the proposal over concerns that the shelter would have a chilling effect on the future development of raw ground near the new site. At the Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission last month, the Lawrence Chamber of Commerce also expressed concerns about the site.
Johnson said he thinks those concerns are justified, based on the past operations of the shelter.
“I think the community is supportive of having a homeless shelter,” Johnson said. “But I think the community expects some accountability, and for it to be run a lot differently than it has been.”
Mayor Rob Chestnut said he thinks the shelter and future development can co-exist, as long as the shelter is well-managed.
“The physical setup of the site is definitely better than the current location at being able to avoid a lot of activity happening off the property,” Chestnut said.
Commissioners will meet at 6:35 p.m. Tuesday at City Hall, Sixth and Massachusetts streets.