Convicted criminals, drug addicts, the mentally ill and people with none of those problems all sleep under the same roof at the Lawrence Community Shelter.
That’s part of homelessness, and tension is a given, shelter Director Loring Henderson said. However, he said, the recent throat-stabbing was a “sad” and isolated incident of violence. Procedures are in place that typically are effective in minimizing crime and deescalating feuds.
“We deal with a range of people, a range of issues, a range of problems,” he said. “I would like to reassure the public and current and future guests of the shelter that it is a safe place.”
According to the shelter’s 2013 annual report, 20 percent of guests have diagnosed mental illnesses or substance abuse disorders.
Henderson believes that number is actually higher, because it only counts what people report about themselves. There also are guests who are fresh out of prison without relatives or friends to stay with, and guests who are physically or mentally disabled. Programs to get people on their feet are key to the shelter’s mission.
“There’s not a place for them to go but shelters,” Henderson said.
“We believe in redemption. We believe in helping people. That’s what we’re here for.”
There’s only one type of person the shelter automatically turns away at the door — registered sex offenders.
Henderson said the shelter took in sex offenders when it was downtown at 214 W. 10th St. But they’re not allowed anymore because there now are children at the shelter, which added a family wing when it moved into its new, larger home at 3655 E. 25th St. in late 2012.
The shelter’s intake process seeks to discover more about each new face that arrives, Henderson said, whether the person stays a night or a year.
People who are drunk or high aren’t allowed in the shelter during the day, Henderson said, but they are allowed to come in to sleep at night as long as they behave. Everyone must agree to the shelter’s rules and consequences for not complying — namely being banned for certain periods of time.
In addition to checking the sex offender registry, shelter staff ask guests to disclose their criminal histories, Henderson said. Often more of that information comes out later, when case workers do background searches and begin to develop a rapport with guests, he said.
Guests can bring in most any belongings they want as long as they’re not too big, but weapons and drugs are not allowed.
“We usually check,” Henderson said. “We just say, ‘Can we take a look through your stuff,’ and they say, ‘Yes.’”
Old vs. new
Mayor Mike Dever said the City Commission has heard fewer complaints about safety or nuisances since the shelter moved to the edge of town.
“There’s a heightened awareness of the situation now because of the most recent incident with the unfortunate stabbing,” Dever said. “But we used to have quite a bit more questions related to safety.”
Disputes between shelter guests plus loitering and cutting through neighbors’ yards led to many police calls at the old downtown location, Dever said.
He said complaints spurred the creation of the shelter’s management plan, a document the commission required for extension of the shelter’s special-use permit. In 2013, 14 percent of the shelter’s operating revenue came from the city, according to the shelter’s annual report.
“It seems as though the problem which was rising to a major concern has been reduced to one that is manageable and probably taken care of by the professional staff at the shelter,” Dever said.
Lawrence police do not have a formal role in shelter policies or management, said Sgt. Trent McKinley, department spokesman. He said shelter staff has been good to work with, whether when responding to calls or serving warrants to guests.
“They’ve always been very forthcoming in helping us locate people,” McKinley said.
Henderson said a case manager at the shelter also serves as its security guard during the day. He is unarmed but “big, bulky and strong,” Henderson said, and he’s very good at dealing with the population to deescalate situations.
The shelter also has security cameras all over, inside and out. “We know what’s going on here,” Henderson said.
Two violent crimes
There was another stabbing at the shelter in 2008.
The then-19-year-old suspect, Adam Mallamo, was charged with attempted second-degree murder and later pleaded guilty to aggravated battery. He was accused of stabbing a shelter guest in the chest with a knife.
The new shelter’s kitchen manager, 46-year-old Robert Shaner, is at home recovering after being stabbed in the throat with one of the shelter’s kitchen knives on March 13 in the dining hall.
Christopher Jamond George McKay, 21, has been charged with attempted first-degree murder. McKay has not been incarcerated for violent crimes in Kansas or Missouri, according to a search of records from those states.
Shaner counts himself lucky to be alive.
He said he cares about the shelter, where he initially stayed as a guest after serving prison time for drug convictions. After being hired as the kitchen manager last year, Shaner got his own place.
He expects to be physically ready to work within weeks but said he is looking for other employment because returning triggers post-traumatic stress and extreme anxiety.
Shaner said he believes the man who stabbed him was mentally disturbed and that the shelter should have done more to get him help. Shaner said if he were to return to work he wants to verify that all safety policies are being followed as they should be.
“I can’t bear to go look in the kitchen or the dining room,” Shaner said.