Downtown will continue to be home to a homeless shelter for a bit longer.
City commissioners on Tuesday approved a one-year extension of the Lawrence Community Shelter’s operating permit at 10th and Kentucky streets, but not before hearing opposition from some area residents and the board of directors of Downtown Lawrence Inc.
“We believe it is time to say enough already,” Jane Pennington, director of Downtown Lawrence Inc., told commissioners. Pennington read from a statement approved by the organization’s board that said the group was understanding of the need for a shelter but believed its current location was incompatible with the city’s desire to keep downtown vibrant.
City commissioners, though, unanimously agreed — after more than three hours of debate — to extend the permit in order to give shelter leaders more time to develop a new shelter site on the eastern edge of Lawrence.
“I think we are so close to the best solution we’ve seen in a long time,” Mayor Rob Chestnut said.
Shelter leaders have filed necessary land use requests to convert a warehouse building immediately east of the Douglas County Jail into a new homeless shelter and jobs center. Lawrence-Douglas County Planning commissioners are scheduled to hear the proposal for that site — 3701 Franklin Park Circle — on March 22. City commissioners could consider giving the project final approval in mid-April.
But shelter leaders said they’ll need a significant amount of time to raise money for the project — perhaps up to $3 million — before the new site can become a reality. Shelter leaders had asked the commission to approve a two-year extension of the facility’s operating permit, but commissioners balked.
Instead, commissioners said one year with a caveat was more appropriate. The caveat is that commissioners want to see a new management plan for the shelter by June, or else they could choose to revoke the permit.
Several commissioners said they want that plan to come up with ways to make shelter guests more accountable for their actions. Commissioners also want to explore ways to ensure shelter guests actually are residents of Douglas County, and that the shelter’s staff be more vigilant in confiscating alcohol and drug paraphernalia from guests.
City Commissioner Lance Johnson said he personally would like the shelter to change its policy so individuals who have been drinking or using drugs could not stay at the shelter, but said he would not make that a condition for future approval. Other commissioners also said they likely would not seek that from the new management plan.
“I know that would be a tough one to put on you because we don’t have another place in the community to handle that,” Johnson said.
Commissioners did hear from several shelter supporters, including multiple shelter board members who said they were confident that fundraising activities would go well once the group’s fundraising committee could tell donors that a site had been approved by the city.
Britt Kring, a member of the shelter’s board, said he believes the site near the Douglas County Jail has the best chance of any the shelter recently has looked at because of how isolated it is from any residential structures.
“Quite frankly, I don’t know where else to put it if this site doesn’t work,” Kring said.
Shelter leaders will meet with neighbors and property owners near the proposed site at 6:30 p.m. Thursday at Building No. 1 at the Douglas County 4-H Fairgrounds. The meeting is open to the public.