I’m sitting on a couch at the Family Promise day center, two little girls tucked close beside. I’m reading aloud the Dr. Seuss classic “And to Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street.” I’m glad for this couch, this island of comfort for these two giggling wigglers. I’m sad, mixed with mad, to think of the 29 other families that have come to our organization over the last four weeks seeking shelter, families whom we have turned away.
Our capacity is firm, no more than 14 family members in whatever the current configuration of mothers and fathers and children happens to be. That’s all the meals and overnight shelter our networks of congregations and volunteers can provide, that’s the top number our van can transport, that’s the full census our limited staff can serve well. It’s a formula that works to provide transitional emergency housing in 170 Family Promise affiliates nationwide.
It’s a different story across the way at Lawrence Community Shelter. There is no room at that inn, no room there for a couch and quiet for reading rhymes. At LCS, 16 children currently sleep shoulder to shoulder on floor mats in a crowded common room. Three tiny babies are there, as well. The 7,700-square-foot building built for office suites now houses 75 people nightly; it is a wild and sometimes chaotic assortment of men and women and children who’ve sought shelter there as a last resort.
It ought not be so. Long before our newly remodeled and expanded public library opens, long before our newly funded community theater draws its curtain, years before a new rec center opens on our city’s west side, our community’s only emergency shelter must have a decent new home in Franklin Business Center.
Dr. Seuss submitted the manuscript for Mulberry Street, his first children’s book, more than 35 times before he found a publisher. LCS has considered and been denied almost as many new locations. But finally, after years of noisy and ugly not-in-my-backyard disputes, a last-minute heroic bid by Douglas County overcame opposition by Franklin Business Park owners and gave the shelter the green light to purchase the property.
Now the only remaining barrier to a smooth move by LCS is financial. Unfortunately time is short and there’s a lot on the line if a major deadline isn’t met.
The shelter’s next giant trial is to meet a Mabee Foundation matching grant challenge due, ironically, on Thanksgiving Day. As of late last week, LCS still needed to raise $373,000 to ensure receipt of Mabee funds and close the deal on the new shelter. Failing to raise the remaining matching money would be a major setback for our community, the loss of $540,000 in Mabee funds.
Shelter trustees and fundraisers have been working hard and fast, raising $1,975,000 in gifts and pledges toward a total campaign goal of $2,725,000. Meeting the Mabee challenge will mean a major victory, a completed campaign.
LCS’s new location will be a different animal from the inadequate stopgap at 10th and Kentucky streets. The new LCS will be licensed to serve 125 people and will allow private rooms for case managers to work as well as real beds, security and safety. It will also provide space for LCS’s back-to-work program and a dog biscuit bakery business that has more demand than it can currently accommodate.
It’s been years since our Community Commission on Homelessness, with the unanimous approval of our City Commission and mayor, approved a housing vision that necessarily begins with a single emergency shelter. From there individuals must work to the best of their abilities to move forward into temporary transitional housing, then to traditional transitional housing and on to either permanent supportive housing or plain old home (sweet!) permanent housing.
We can’t guarantee success for all. We can’t fix the game so everyone succeeds. But we can do our best to offer a safe and decent square one, both for LCS and for all its guests. A new shelter will finally provide, as the organization’s tagline promises, “a path to a positive future.” Let’s go there. Now.
Now that’d be a story no one could beat, a path even brighter than Mulberry Street.