A homeless jobs program is set to expand later this month by opening up a retail store in east Lawrence.
The Lawrence Community Shelter’s Good Dog! Biscuit & Treat program has rented space near Ninth and Connecticut streets to boost production of its homemade dog treats and to open a dog specialty shop.
“In the three years that we’ve had this program going, we’ve had 11 people who have worked with it move out of homelessness,” said Dianne Huggins, the assistant director of the shelter and leader of the dog biscuit program. “We’re thrilled with that number, but we think it can go even higher.”
Work is under way to convert space at 412 E. Ninth St. into a small retail shop that will sell the dog biscuits plus items and services from other small Lawrence businesses that cater to dog lovers.
The new shop — tentatively named The Dog House — excites shelter leaders, but not as much as the possibility that the store will allow the program to boost the number of homeless people it employs. Currently, the program employs seven homeless people on a part-time basis, and pays them about $9 an hour for their work making and baking the biscuits.
“It has been important because it has allowed me to save a little bit of money for the first time in a long time,” said Jon McMillan, a shelter guest who works about six hours a week at the business.
The savings focus is a big one for the program, Huggins said. All of the employees must agree to set aside a portion of each paycheck into a savings program administered by the shelter. The savings is designed to give shelter guests money to help them find a new home.
In addition to the money, Huggins said the program gives the homeless important skills that they can take to any job.
“There is a lot about responsibility here,” Huggins said. “We have a schedule, and people are expected to stick to it. If they can’t make it to work, they have to call and tell me that.”
One of the bigger benefits has been that the program has given the homeless a recent job to put on their résumés. Mark Debarr said the program played an important role in helping him land a job with a local fast-food restaurant.
“Things immediately started to pick up after I got this job,” Debarr said.
The store is expected to open May 22. Current plans call for it to be open from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturdays. The store plans to operate as a cooperative, with about 10 local businesses selling goods or services. In addition to the dog biscuits, the store likely will have artwork featuring dogs, handmade dog collars, dog walking services, and the store is looking for a local potter to make dog dishes.
The store also plans to partner with the Lawrence Humane Society to promote pet adoption.
“We have this theme of homeless people helping homeless pets,” said Maureen Bernhagen, a Lawrence resident and former Sears executive who has volunteered to help market the program. “We would love to grow that concept nationally. We think it is a natural. The dogs need socialization, and the people need the dogs because their comfort is love.”
The biscuit program has been operating for the past three years inside the Lawrence Community Shelter at 10th and Kentucky streets, and has been using the kitchen at the Lawrence Interdenominational Nutrition Kitchen.
The program will have dedicated space in the shelter’s new location, if shelter leaders are successful in moving the shelter from downtown into a warehouse near the Douglas County Jail in eastern Lawrence.
The program will continue to sell biscuits at the approximately half-dozen locations it started with, including at the Lawrence Farmers’ Market, The Merc, the Humane Society and several pet-related businesses in Lawrence.