Lawrence City Commission approves permit for downtown homeless center
photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World photo
Though some neighbors voiced concerns, city leaders have approved a plan to convert a building near downtown into a drop-in center for the homeless.
As part of its meeting Tuesday, the Lawrence City Commission voted unanimously to approve a special use permit for the homeless center, which will be located at 944 Kentucky St., a location that formerly housed the Lawrence Community Shelter. Neighbors filed a protest petition, and some voiced concerns that the center would negatively affect the neighborhood.
Mayor Lisa Larsen said that she thought having such a center was obviously a need for the community, but its location adjacent to a residential neighborhood did make the decision more difficult. However, Larsen said that homeless people are already downtown, and this gives them needed support.
“But we’ve got to have a place for folks to go,” Larsen said. “And I think this is a good place for them to do it. This is where they’re at, they’re downtown already, and this is an opportunity for them to get some care: a shower, clothing, a little bit of support. I just can’t see anything wrong with that, so I’m going to support it.”
Loring Henderson filed the plans for the center on behalf of the nonprofit Coalition for Homeless Concerns. The center will be open every day for four hours and will provide access to showers, restrooms and laundry facilities. Henderson has said there will also be phones, coffee, donated snacks, a TV, referral to social services, and a voluntary Christian ministry.
The building sits in a transitional zoning district between the residentially zoned neighborhood and commercially zoned downtown Lawrence and requires the special use permit for that use, according to city planner Mary Miller. The commission voted to have the permit re-evaluated after three years, and for certain conditions to be required. Miller said if conditions of the permit are violated, the permit could be revoked or suspended.
Under the conditions of the permit, the center can have a maximum of 20 guests and at most 30 total occupants. Henderson said the center will be low budget and dependent on volunteers, and the permit requires a minimum of two volunteers to be on duty. Under the permit conditions, loitering on the property outside of operating hours would be a violation of the center’s policies and must be addressed by center staff. The commission also stipulated that the center must meet with neighbors twice in the first year and annually thereafter.
More than 15 people spoke during public comment about the center, and most said they supported the plans for the center. Lawrence resident Bernie Kish told the commission that there is an obligation to help the less fortunate members of society, and said he hoped the commission would approve the center.
“I think it would be a wonderful place for those homeless people to get a little respect, a little decency, and a place that they can feel good about being in,” Kish said.
Some neighbors expressed concerns that the homeless center will increase the crime rates and other issues in the area, including trespassing, damage to property and public drunkenness. The Oread Residents Association stated it is supportive of the center, but asked that there be a plan to provide transportation to the Lawrence Community Shelter once the center closes and that there be an outdoor gathering space apart from the building’s small front porch.
Lawrence resident Michael Blumenthal, who lives near the center, said that he thought such a center was a great idea, but that locating it next to a residential neighborhood was not appropriate. Blumenthal also expressed concern that the center does not have a plan for what to do when it reaches its 20-guest maximum, the transportation of guests once the center closes, and the handling of problematic behavior such as loitering, public drunkenness and panhandling.
Larsen said she was also a little concerned about the lack of a concrete plan concerning overflow and transportation once the center closes. Henderson responded by asking what happens when other locations, such as the library or LINK, the nonprofit meal program, close, but then added that he and other volunteers were willing to drive people to the Lawrence Community Shelter if that’s where they want to go.
Though commissioners agreed to add the condition to the permit about holding meetings with neighbors to address concerns, they did not ultimately require a transportation plan.
Commissioner Matthew Herbert said he didn’t think there was any question that there is a demand for the services the center will provide, but that the debate was where it should belong and ensuring the neighborhood has a voice. Herbert said he thought that was accomplished since the permit can be revoked if conditions are violated, and that he was glad to see the community providing the service.
“Other than telling them it’s OK for them to do this, we’re not really doing a whole lot with this,” Herbert said. “And I would love to see it succeed because of that. Because it truly shows the humanity of people versus the way a government can make something happen.”