Planning Commission recommends approval of homeless drop-in center in downtown Lawrence
photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World photo
A plan to convert a downtown building into a drop-in center for the homeless has received its first approval at City Hall.
As part of its meeting Wednesday, the Lawrence-Douglas County Metropolitan Planning Commission voted, 5-4, to recommend the approval of a special use permit for the center, which would be located at 944 Kentucky St. All of the commissioners said they approved of the project, but the vote was split because they disagreed on whether the permit should be re-evaluated after three or two years, with the latter time frame winning out.
The center, called the Drop-in and Respite Center, requires the permit in order to be used as a temporary shelter. Some neighbors voiced concern that the center would negatively impact the neighborhood. Commission Chair Karen Willey said that, while she recognized those concerns, she thinks the center is needed.
“I think this fills a gap, fills a need in our community,” Willey said. “And how we treat the most vulnerable among us is a reflection of ourselves.”
As the Journal-World previously reported, the center would be operational during the day in the former home of the Lawrence Community Shelter. The former director of the shelter, Loring Henderson, filed the plans on behalf of the nonprofit Coalition for Homeless Concerns. The permit application calls for the center to be open from 2:30 to 6:30 p.m. daily. It will provide homeless people access to showers, restrooms, phones, referral services, voluntary Bible study and worship, as well as coffee, donated snacks, TV and volunteer-led activities.
Willey said she thinks providing services for homeless people in the afternoon, as is being proposed, dovetails well with existing services in the community.
But City Planner Mary Miller said letters sent to the city voiced several potential concerns with having such a center, including an increase in crime, an increased presence of homeless people congregating downtown and a decrease in property values.
City planning staff had originally recommended approving the permit and having the permit be subject to re-evaluation after three years. However, some neighbors suggested shortening that period to one year because of their concerns. Because of the time it takes to review a permit and the conditions, the commission eventually settled on re-evaluating the permit after two years.
Planning staff also spelled out several conditions that the center would have to meet, including a maximum occupancy of 20 homeless guests and 30 individuals total; a minimum of two staff members present during operational hours; prohibiting loitering or outdoor use outside of the center’s operating hours; and limiting operating hours to 2:30 to 6:30 p.m. daily. In addition, staff recommended that the center provide an annual report to the City Commission.
Lawrence resident Phil Hemphill, who said he has lived on Kentucky Street for more than 30 years, said there were various issues when the shelter previously operated out of the building. Hemphill said that included public drunkenness, fights, trespassing and other inappropriate behaviors, and that shelter staff hadn’t adequately addressed the issues.
When asked by the commission how such behavior would be handled, Henderson said that people would first be warned, and that they could be temporarily barred from using the center if the behavior persisted.
Henderson said he thinks the center is needed in the downtown area, noting that LINK, the nonprofit meal program that provides free meals four days per week at First Christian Church at 10th and Kentucky, closes at 2:30 p.m.
“I feel that there is an unmet need for a place like this for homeless people in Lawrence,” Henderson said. “A lot of other cities have something like this. It serves both the needs of the homeless population and, frankly, I think, the downtown businesses.”
A letter from the Oread Residents Associations stated that the ORA is supportive of the city providing the permit, adding that the ORA believes there is a need for shelter and resource assistance for homeless individuals during the day near downtown. The ORA requested that the outdoor gathering area be improved and that there be a plan for transporting homeless individuals to the Lawrence Community Shelter once the center closes.
Several neighbors, though, submitted protest petitions to the city ahead of Wednesday’s meeting. These petitioners were notified that the petition should be submitted following Wednesday’s meeting instead, city staff said at the meeting.
The Planning Commission’s recommendation will be sent to the City Commission, which will make the ultimate decision about the permit at a future meeting. If staff later determines that the protest petition is valid, a supermajority of commissioners, or four out of five, will be required to approve the permit.