Community Shelter benefit
Girl Scout Troop 7745 is having a rummage sale to benefit the Lawrence Community Shelter from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. April 6 at the American Legion, 3408 W. Sixth St. in Lawrence. The girls are hoping to raise enough money to build a playground at the shelter.
The troop is now accepting donations for the sale, and is asking for toys, books, furniture, household items, clothing or anything else that is in good shape and new or gently used.
Please email questions and requests to pick up items or call Linda Edman at (785) 842-1099 and leave a message.
A few months ago, Robert Marshall and his family — a son, fiancee, her daughter — slept on mats on the floor of the Lawrence Community Shelter, commingling with single residents of different ages and genders. One day last week, however, Marshall watched TV while his fiancee hung out in a private bedroom and Robert Jr., who turns 7 on Tuesday, stood surrounded by kids his own age playing with toys.
Marshall was at the new Lawrence Community Shelter, 3701 Franklin Park Circle, which residents and organizers say provides more space and privacy than the previous location at 10th and Kentucky streets.
"We had anywhere from nine to 13 families in a room. We slept on mats on the floor," said Marshall, 33, of Kansas City, Kan. "We were basically sardines in a can."
The shelter doubled in size after relocating Dec. 29 to southeast Lawrence, near the Douglas County Jail. The size increased from 7,700 square feet to 15,000, in a move organizers say was years in the making. The $3.2 million facility also has a 10,000-square-foot job-training center, which sits largely empty save for some desks and chairs for GED classes. Organizers say the space eventually will be filled with job-certification programs in such fields as housekeeping, maintenance and recycling.
The shelter currently has about 120 residents, with the space to fit roughly a half-dozen more. The old building had a capacity of 75 with nearby churches taking in another 15 people nightly.
"We were really really cramped," said Loring Henderson, the shelter's executive director. "It was also an old building. We were in a bad situation. Everybody was glad to get out of there."
Henderson said the new space gives residents a greater sense of stability, allowing them to focus on finding a job and place to live. The additional room was much needed, he added, as the number of people needing to stay at the shelter has shot up in recent years.
The family space is one of the major upgrades at the new shelter. It features separate bedrooms containing actual beds, three bathrooms with showers and tubs, and a common area that includes a TV, computer with Internet access and large selection of toys. On a recent day there, a teenage girl sat on a recliner reading a book, a middle-aged woman looked up job openings on the computer and a mohawked baby played with a deflated basketball.
"It's night and day for us," said Elizabeth Stephens, director of family programs at the shelter. "I think the whole shelter (at the previous location) was the size of our (new) family area."
Stephens said the relocation has "changed the momentum" of the city's efforts to find homes for the displaced. Residents, particularly children, have been less stressed out and thus less apt to fight and argue with one another. "They are much more able to make progress because they are not all standing on top of each other," she said, adding: "Families feel a lot more comfortable and have more dignity because they sleep in a comfortable bed and have a space to call their own."
The family section is already close to capacity, and Stephens recently has had to turn away several families. Still, she said three families have been able to move out since February, a faster turnover rate than at the old shelter.
In the rest of the facility, two residents have found housing while 10 have gotten permanent jobs since the move. Henderson, though, says the overall turnover rate has yet to change very much, something he attributes largely to the newness of the place. "So much of the first two months have been getting settled," he said.
City officials are taking a wait-and-see approach in determining the new facility's effectiveness. "I've always said we need to temper any expectations as far as improvement in the situation downtown with opening the new shelter," said City Commissioner Hugh Carter. "I don't know if we'll really know if it's had any impact on downtown or the number of homeless until we've had the four seasons to look at."
That said, Carter is confident the people of Lawrence made a good investment, pointing to the new center's stricter management plan and additional office space that allows for private meetings between residents and social-service providers. "This new shelter, I've always thought it should be renamed. It's more than just a shelter. It's a jobs program," he said. "I do believe with those tools and resources we'll see better results of getting people into homes or jobs."
One drawback of the new center is its location on the far southeast side of town, though the city recently added a bus stop nearby. "People have a hard time finding us," Henderson admitted, adding that the shelter now spends significantly more money on gasoline driving residents to appointments. It also pays more for utilities because of the larger facility.
Elsewhere in the shelter, men and women now have separate sleeping areas complete with bunk beds; a kitchen manager prepares multiple hot meals a day; a library features books donated by the Lawrence Public Library; and a garden soon will enable residents to grow their own food.
The shelter's medical clinic is always open, dispensing medication to residents as they need it. Emergency calls are down at the new building.
In addition, residents at the shelter continue to, as they have for the past six years, make dog treats under the Good Dog! label. "We're hoping to prepare them for the outside job market," said Maureen Bernhagen, one of the program's coordinators.
Carol Vesco, a 44-year-old resident from Tonganoxie, said she greatly prefers the new facility to the old one.
"We have our own beds. Before we had to sleep on the floor and wait for mats," she said. "We have more than one bathroom, which is nice, and more than a couple showers. It's a lot cleaner, also. The only thing I don't like is it's too far away and you can't walk downtown if you need to."
"It has a lot more space, more privacy, instead of having six people listen to your conversations," said Josh Kimmerly, a 28-year-old resident who is originally from Toronto. "We actually have a place to go eat. You can actually sit and have a meal."
His only criticism was that the center needed more bathrooms.
Marshall similarly favors the location of the former shelter, as it allowed residents to walk to the gasoline station or library. He also wishes the facility had a refrigerator so residents could have their own food. His only other complaint had more to do with the community's attitude toward the homeless. "I don't have my GED, and I live in a college town. Trying to find a job without the GED part is really complicated," he said. "I just think it's judgmental. Give someone a chance to actually prove themselves."
But the positives would seem to outweigh the negatives at this point. For one, Marshall said, the multitude of space out back gives children plenty of room to run around. "There are more activities for the family to do instead of being cooped up, depressed and lazy," he added.
Nearly three months in, things at the Lawrence Community Shelter look to be on the upswing.
"We're just extremely grateful to the community of Lawrence for its support," said Henderson. "We have a decent facility. We have a lot of ideas to put into practice as time unfolds. We're just getting started."