Saying they didn’t have many other feasible options, a narrow majority of Lawrence city commissioners on Tuesday agreed to allow Lawrence’s homeless shelter to continue operating downtown while it looks for a permanent location.
Commissioners at their weekly meeting approved a one-year extension of an operating permit for the Lawrence Community Shelter and approved an increase in its occupancy on a 3-2 vote. The swing vote on the issue ended up being one that had been two years in the making.
“I was skeptical coming into this position about what was being done at the shelter,” said Lawrence City Commissioner Lance Johnson, who is in the final weeks of a two-year term. “But I’ve become a believer in the shelter over the last two years and in the efforts being made at the shelter.”
Johnson was joined by Commissioners Aron Cromwell and Mike Dever in voting to extend the shelter’s permit and increase its year round occupancy from 57 people per night to 81. But none of the commissioners said they thought the shelter’s location at 10th and Kentucky streets was a good one. In fact, Cromwell said it would be hard to think of a worse location for the shelter. But the trio also said they couldn’t support the idea of the community going without a homeless shelter.
“It is not an ideal place, but we don’t have any other choices right now,” Dever said.
Shelter leaders had hoped to deliver a report to commissioners that they were well on their way to moving the shelter to a vacant warehouse near the Douglas County Jail. But a ruling in Douglas County District Court over covenant issues at the site has all but killed those plans.
Mayor Mike Amyx and Commissioner Rob Chestnut voted against the extension and occupancy increase. But neither commissioner said they wanted to close the shelter down. Instead, they wanted more information, and Amyx said he wanted to consider an extension that would have been for less than a year. Both also said they were uncertain the shelter could adequately handle the increase in occupancy.
The shelter has had an overnight occupancy limit of 82 people during the winter months, but its occupancy maximum dropped to 57 people during the warmer months. Shelter leaders asked for the 82 number to be year around because they said they had proven the shelter could operate safely at that level. Commissioners ultimately approved 81 as the maximum, which matches the maximum set by the city’s fire department following a recent inspection.
But Chestnut said he thought the city was pushing the envelope by allowing more people in a building that the shelter already admits is too small.
“I think we have to operate with the idea that the shelter is going to operating at this location for 18 to 24 months,” Chestnut said. “I just don’t think it is sustainable to have 82 people at that location for that period of time.”
None of the trio of commissioners supporting the greater occupancy said they liked the idea, but they also agreed with shelter leaders that by limiting the occupancy it increased the likelihood that people would loiter outside the shelter overnight.
Shelter director Loring Henderson said his group continues to look for a new site for the shelter. He said since the court’s ruling last month, there have been some building owners who have contacted the shelter about a possible deal. He said the shelter is evaluating several sites but declined to reveal any of them.
“Nobody wants to be out of that location we’re in now worse than we do,” said Henderson, who said he’s holding out hope to be out of the location within 12 months, but conceded it is an aggressive timeline to find a building, get it approved by the city and renovate it.
Commissioners did receive some written correspondence from neighbors protesting the shelter’s permit, but no one from the public spoke directly against the request at Tuesday’s meeting.