I was off the grid last week when Loring Henderson, director of the Lawrence Community Shelter, called my home phone to let me know that the shelter had asked the city to drop its special use permit request for the old Don’s Steakhouse site and announced that it will pursue instead purchase of an existing building at the Franklin Business Center, just east of the county jail. I was spending the night as an overnight host with Family Promise, sitting around plates of spaghetti and meatballs, talking with several moms and dads about life, childrearing, job searching and, with some, about time they’d spent at the shelter before being accepted into the Family Promise program.
Even before I got Loring’s call, I was stirred with thankfulness and hope as I chatted with these very likable individuals. These smart and loving parents are doing their very best, I’m convinced, to move ahead and get on stable ground — and in stable housing. Every one of those parents would admit to past mistakes, to living life on an ear-popping learning curve. Most of us, if we’re honest and half awake, would confess to similar live-and-learn patterns, even if the consequences of our lessons are not so stark as those these families have endured.
One of the reasons I feel some hopefulness is that I believe our community finally has a workable plan for housing all members of our community. Our city’s Community Commission on Homelessness, composed of service providers, business leaders, law enforcement, corrections officials and lay volunteers, has drafted and adopted — with the full support of the City Commission — a housing vision that begins with emergency shelter and is designed to move, as quickly as possible, individuals through a housing continuum that results in appropriate permanent housing.
The housing vision is progress; it offers different housing options for different populations and avoids duplication of services or inappropriate placements of people with addictions, mental illness and special needs. New federal rapid re-housing funds and creative new programs such as the housing authority’s E-Housing Connector and Family Promise have contributed to the options available. Affordable housing stock is still a scarcity in Lawrence, but numbers of those seeking emergency shelter during the recent severe cold were actually down from last winter. Even with additional shelter being offered at downtown churches, LCS reports a high thus far this year of 91 people seeking emergency shelter (including five families with children) rather than the significantly higher numbers reported last winter.
Every housing provider in the community fits into the plan. Having the continuum clearly defined has allowed us to focus on gaps and shortages. It’s a place to start. If individuals are not progressing through the continuum we can help them identify and focus on obstacles. Is an individual not being housed or not retaining housing because the type of permanent supportive housing for those with mental illness is in short supply? Is it because of staff or programming shortfalls?
Housing people in need is not a perfect science. People mess up. The system breaks down. But our housing vision is a good plan and it provides a clear picture of what we need.
Square one of the housing vision, however, is emergency shelter. A well-run and adequate emergency shelter is a necessary resource and entry point for needy people in our community. Lawrence Community Shelter is the one provider that has stepped up to the plate to meet this need. Shelter trustees and staff, city staff, transit and law enforcement officials, as well as our Community Commission on Homelessness, will carefully consider the pros and cons of the Franklin Business Center as the potential new location for LCS. The city-county planning commission and ultimately the Lawrence City Commission will approve or disapprove the shelter’s plan. At this point, however, shelter leaders believe Franklin Center can be affordable, that it will have minimal effect on neighbors to the property, that the lot and existing building are suitably sized for all present and planned programs and needs, and that transportation issues can be addressed with city buses and other means. Best of all, shelter officials believe relocation can occur sooner than would have been possible at other sites.
So begins again a familiar dance. The disappointment and bone weariness so many of us who’ve been involved in issues of homelessness in the community for years is significant. But now we have more reasons than ever to be hopeful. I’m thinking that the days of our emergency shelter itself struggling with rejection and the reality of being, as they say, “precariously housed” are almost over. I’m thinking and hoping we’re moving ahead.