Leaders of Lawrence homeless shelter say capacity remains limited in effort to stop virus spread
photo by: Mike Yoder
Leaders at the local homeless shelter say that although they are once again accepting new residents, the pandemic continues to limit the shelter’s ability to house the homeless.
The Lawrence Community Shelter, 3655 E. 25th St., stopped accepting new residents in March because of the coronavirus pandemic and instead shifted its focus to finding housing for those who were experiencing homelessness, as the Journal-World previously reported. At one point, toward the end of April, the shelter had only 23 people staying in a building that at times has housed up to 125 people.
The shelter’s executive director, Renee Kuhl, said that though the shelter has begun intake of new guests again, the shelter’s focus remains getting people housed and capacity remains limited to deter the spread of the virus. The shelter has male and female dormitories and separate living areas for families, and Kuhl said the shelter’s new socially distanced setup for beds can house up to 60 people if all those areas are utilized to their full capacity. Currently, she says, the shelter is housing 39 people.
“We still have a really limited ability to shelter people in the facility because we have to make sure everyone is socially distanced,” Kuhl said. “That hasn’t changed. The housing focus hasn’t changed.”
Kuhl said that since the pandemic began, the shelter, through both fundraising efforts and grants, has been able to house 68 people. She said 52 of those people transitioned to permanent housing and 16 are living with family or friends.
Though there are beds open under the new socially distanced layout, Kuhl said there is still an approximately two-week waiting list for homeless people seeking to stay at the shelter. Kuhl said that’s because the intake process is now done by appointment instead of on a walk-in basis so that guests can be screened for COVID-19 symptoms, which makes the process much slower. She said people with symptoms are redirected to testing and an off-site quarantine location until results are known.
Regarding concerns that homeless people currently living at outdoor campsites in several locations within the city face hygiene and safety issues due to the virus and the hot weather, Kuhl said the current intake process and layout were in place to prevent an outbreak. She said that the shelter is currently working on other solutions, but right now it can’t go back to intaking people at the door or the higher guest capacity the shelter has had in the past. She said homeless people are a very vulnerable population when it comes to the virus, and that other respiratory viruses like influenza and R.S.V. have spread widely in the past among the shelter’s guests.
“I just cannot expose the people who stay here to an outbreak,” Kuhl said.
So far, Kuhl said 11 shelter staff members and 11 shelter guests have been tested for the virus and all have tested negative, and she said that indicates that the shelter’s approach is working. However, improvements are in the works.
The City of Lawrence recently allocated a $446,000 federal coronavirus relief grant to the shelter, which will go toward capital projects at the shelter’s facility, including the addition of a quarantine area and improvements to the ventilation system and the bathrooms that Kuhl said will help deter the spread of the virus. Those updates will be finished in either late 2020 or spring of 2021, Kuhl said.
The reductions in the number of available beds due to the virus follow reductions that were made last year. The shelter reduced its capacity in August 2019 by about half, from 125 to 65 people, because shelter leaders said they couldn’t afford to fund the staffing levels needed to safely operate at full capacity.