Falling temperatures have created rising numbers for the Lawrence Community Shelter, so much so that on many nights the homeless shelter is operating out of three downtown locations.
Shelter director Loring Henderson said that on many nights the shelter has housed more than 100 people in order for homeless people to remain out of the bitter cold.
“We’ve been consistently around 90 people and sometimes up to 110 people,” Henderson said. “Because of the extreme cold weather being so steady, it has been pretty tough for quite a few folks.”
The shelter’s building at 10th and Kentucky streets can house 76 people during the winter months. But the shelter is taking advantage of a zoning change approved for the Family Promise program that allows churches to temporarily house 15 people overnight.
That allows the shelter to partner with area churches to serve as overflow homeless shelters. Henderson occasionally used that system of temporary overflow shelters last winter, but he said he’s been forced to use it much more frequently this year.
The shelter has operated three locations — the shelter’s main building plus two downtown churches — 20 nights during the last six weeks. Henderson said the shelter last winter only had such demand on two or three occasions.
In addition to the cold weather, an increase in the number of families has added to crowding. Henderson on Monday said the shelter was serving five families with a total of about 10 children and nine adults. He said the poor economy is leading to more families at the shelter, but he also said the number of victims of domestic abuse also seems to be on the rise.
“I believe that when the economy is bad, domestic abuse may increase,” Henderson said. “People’s tempers get on edge.”
The shelter has agreements with four downtown churches — Plymouth Congregational Church, First United Methodist Church, Trinity Lutheran Church and The Salvation Army — to use their facilities when nighttime temperatures are 32 degrees or below.
The city also allows a temporary increase in occupancy of the shelter’s main building from 53 to 76 people during the winter months. That expanded occupancy is set to end on March 31. But Henderson said he is asking for the higher occupancy to be allowed all year.
He said even when the weather is not cold, the demand for shelter space is often above 53 people. He said the shelter has shown that it can safely house 76 people, and it is difficult for people to understand why they are sometimes turned away.
“Operating a lottery system to determine who has a place to sleep at night is harsh,” Henderson said.
City officials are expected to deal with the request in the coming months. The shelter’s special use permit at 10th and Kentucky is set to expire in April.
The shelter is looking to move from its 10th and Kentucky site to a vacant warehouse near the Douglas County Jail in eastern Lawrence. But that move won’t be completed by April. Henderson, though, anticipates this will be the last special use permit the shelter will seek downtown.
“We want to be open in the new location by the end of the year,” Henderson said.
The proposed eastern Lawrence site, though, is the subject of a lawsuit. A Douglas County District Court judge is set to hear arguments next week in a case regarding whether private covenants prohibit the shelter from locating on the eastern Lawrence property.