Homeless shelter has neared capacity but had space for all on sub-zero nights, so far

Alta Dodson gives her 2-year-old daughter Kristin a kiss after Dodson and her partner Sam Maddux tidied up their quarters at the Lawrence Community Shelter, 3655 E. 25th St., on Wednesday, Jan. 17, 2018. Dodson and Maddux have five children staying with them at the shelter, which is allowed to accept extra people on a temporary basis when the weather is cold.

With recent cold snaps in Lawrence reaching potentially deadly overnight lows, does the local homeless shelter have room for everyone needing a warm place to sleep?

Shelter leaders say they’ve neared capacity — even under a rule allowing extra people when it’s cold — but so far, yes.

Part of the battle then becomes getting the word out, which shelter staff attempts with help from other community agencies.

“We do worry that a person experiencing homelessness would choose being outside rather than in the shelter,” said Mia Gonzalez, director of development for the Lawrence Community Shelter, 3655 E. 25th St. “We will work our hardest to make sure that they have a warm place to stay.”

The shelter’s year-round capacity is 125, said Jackie Counts, board of directors president. Under a cold-weather rule, the city allows the shelter to let in an additional 15 guests — for a total of 140 — on a temporary basis when the temperature is below 40 degrees.

The majority of the beds in the men's sleeping dorm at the Lawrence Community Shelter were currently occupied on Wednesday, Jan. 17, 2018.

Although the threshold is 40 degrees, the cold-weather rule really comes into play when temperatures drop quite a bit lower than that.

“When it gets under 20 is when we get a lot of requests,” Gonzalez said.

So far this winter, the shelter has not had to turn anyone away because it was full, Gonzalez said.

Last week, the night of Jan. 15 into the morning of Jan. 16, the overnight low dipped to minus 8 degrees with a dangerously low wind chill value of minus 25, according to the National Weather Service. That night the shelter had expected 134 guests and ended up with 130, Gonzalez said.

The following night, an overnight low of 0 degrees was forecast with wind chills down to minus 5, according to the weather service. The shelter had 139 guests that night, Gonzalez said.

Staff employs some shuffling tactics to ensure the shelter maintains space on the coldest nights.

For one example, shelter staff members may ask people whether they have anyone else they could spend the night with, then provide them a cab to get there, freeing a spot for a person with absolutely no other options, Gonzalez said.

There are certain people who are not allowed to stay at the shelter no matter how cold it is, namely those on the sexual or violent offender list.

People under the influence of alcohol or drugs are allowed in, but if they cause problems they may be asked to leave or staff may call the police, Gonzalez said.

To be allowed to stay at the shelter beyond a short-term basis, guests must be working with a case manager to plug into housing, employment, mental health, sobriety or other programs. At any given time, the shelter may have up to 110 people participating in case management, Counts said.

The shelter currently employs three full-time single adult case managers, each with a top caseload of 25 guests, Counts said. The shelter also has a family case manager who can serve a maximum of up to 35 adults and children.

Gonzalez said shelter staff tries to get temporary guests into programs whenever possible.

For now, people allowed in on a temporary basis under the cold weather rule sleep in extra bunk beds or on mats in the shelter’s day room, a community space just inside the front door, Gonzalez said.

Plans are underway and the shelter has $54,000 from the county earmarked to convert part of the building’s warehouse space into an auxiliary shelter — hoped to open in time for next winter.

The auxiliary shelter, envisioned as overflow space for cold-weather nights, will have room for as many as 30 more people, Gonzalez said.

“We’re still working on our special use permit,” Gonzales said. “We are anticipating starting building the auxiliary shelter this summer, and hopefully opening it by late fall of this year.”

Donate warm clothes

The Lawrence Community Shelter can use donations of warm clothing, new or used. Donations should be dropped off at the shelter, 3655 E. 25th St.

Heavy warm coats, long underwear, wool socks, thermal gloves, hats and hand-warmers are examples of items needed, director of development Mia Gonzalez said.

Anytime the shelter has to turn someone away in the winter, or for guests who must wait at the bus stop or walk outdoors during the day en route to school or jobs, staff tries to provide them with warm clothing, Gonzalez said.