A new $3 million shelter for the area’s homeless likely will open its doors by the end of the year.
The shelter has tentatively scheduled a communitywide open house from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. Dec. 2 at the new shelter, which is located in a former industrial building just east of the Douglas County Jail on the city’s southeast side.
“It is really moving along well,” said Loring Henderson, director of Lawrence Community Shelter. “The walls are going up; the wires are going in. You can absolutely see the shape of the dining room, the day room, the kitchen.
“It’s exciting. It looks like a shelter now.”
Lawrence-based B.A. Construction is estimating it will complete the renovation project by Dec. 21. Henderson said the shelter could begin moving shortly after the Christmas holiday.
“We intend to be out there right around the first of the year,” Henderson said.
The new 15,000-square-foot shelter will have room for 125 beds, up from 75 that can be housed at the current shelter. Henderson said the space is needed now.
When the weather turned cold recently, Henderson said the shelter was full with 75 overnight guests, a neighboring church housed 15 more, and 18 people were given blankets to sleep outside and were told to check in at the shelter periodically to ensure they were surviving the elements.
In addition to the extra sleeping space, which will include an area devoted to homeless families, the shelter also will have a dining room that serves three meals a day and office space for agencies that provide everything from mental health services to job training.
“Right now we use mats instead of beds,” Henderson said of the current shelter. “We have a lot of people who sit on the floor to eat. The new place will have beds; it will have dining tables. It will be humane, decent, terrific. It won’t be fancy, but it will be fancy compared to what we’re used to.”
The new shelter won’t, however, include a drop-in center. The current shelter has a policy that allows people who are not enrolled in the shelter’s programs to use the shelter as a place of refuge during the day. Henderson said that won’t be allowed at the new location.
Henderson said the shelter only will be open to people who have enrolled in the shelter’s formal programming, which includes meetings with case managers and other who can help with job searches, housing assistance, medical issues and disability benefits.
“People will notice more structure out there,” Henderson said. “We’ll have less people dropping in for sure. The people who are there will be able to focus a little bit better on their own issues.”
City leaders will be watching how the new system works out. City commissioners have been supportive of the new shelter policy, but also have said the new rules may mean some of downtown’s more chronic homeless population may not choose to move to the new location.
“I know we’re going to see some very positive impacts for the people who choose to stay at the new shelter,” said City Commissioner Hugh Carter. “But the community needs to be realistic. This new shelter is not going to relieve every challenge we have with the homeless downtown.”
Carter, though, said the city will need to wait and see what issues may develop once the shelter and the drop-in center leave the downtown area.
“Whether they are issues the city steps up and deals with or whether they are privately dealt with, I’m not sure,” Carter said.