With help of volunteers, drop-in overnight shelter set to open at local hotel; more volunteers needed

photo by: Nick Gerik

Days Inn, 730 Iowa St., is pictured Dec. 24, 2020.

With the help of volunteers, the city of Lawrence will be opening an overnight drop-in shelter that aims to provide a safe option in freezing temperatures for the more than 100 homeless people currently estimated to be sleeping outside.

The city and other partners finalized agreements Wednesday afternoon so that the shelter could open Wednesday night, according to Assistant City Manager Brandon McGuire. McGuire said the city has contracted with Days Inn, 730 Iowa St., to host the shelter and signed an agreement with the volunteer group Lawrence Coalition for Homeless Concerns to operate the shelter.

“This was huge effort by many of our city staff and definitely many people who are doing this simply out of the kindness of their own hearts as volunteers,” McGuire said. “And we are really happy to have yet another hotel that is willing to take a chance on us and step up for this community need.”

Earlier this month, the Lawrence City Commission voted to create a two-component program using hotels to shelter homeless people. One program is administered by the Lawrence Community Shelter with the help of federal coronavirus relief aid and operates every day out of the Econo Lodge University hotel. McGuire said the overnight drop-in shelter at Days Inn will be run by volunteers and will only operate when temperatures are below 35 degrees. He said the program was a non-congregate version of the drop-in shelters that were operated by local churches last winter.

“It’s going to run more or less the same as a church or gymnasium, but for covid precautions we are trying to do it in a non-congregate environment,” McGuire said.

Because of the risk of spreading the coronavirus in congregate settings, city staff is not recommending any temporary congregate shelters this year. Instead, the City Commission voted on Dec. 15 to provide $50,000 of city funds to help pay for the hotel stays. The city is applying for a grant to potentially reimburse those costs, but commissioners wanted to fund the overnight drop-in shelter whether the grant is received or not.

Though some volunteers are already in place, more are needed to help run the program. The faith group Justice Matters has been working to organize volunteers, and Ben MacConnell, an organizer with Justice Matters, said that more volunteers are needed for various tasks. Those include guest check-in, overnight supervision, volunteer coordinators, and volunteers to do outreach to homeless individuals to let them know about the program.

“We wanted to come up with a plan to make sure that anybody who comes in off the street seeking a room for the night, because they are afraid of the temperature, would have a place to stay,” MacConnell said.

Those interested in volunteering can email lawrencewintershelter2021@gmail.com or message the Lawrence Winter Shelter Facebook page. Check-in volunteers are only needed from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. and the overnight supervision will be broken into two shifts, according to information MacConnell provided the Journal-World.

The overnight drop-in shelter is in addition to a other efforts. The city is also helping to run a temporary campsite with 20 heated tents in Woody Park, and the Lawrence Community Shelter is managing guests at its facility in eastern Lawrence and in the Econo Lodge University hotel, 2525 W. Sixth St.

The temperature Wednesday night is forecast to drop to a low of about 18 degrees, with wind gusts of up to 40 mph and a chance of snow flurries, according to the National Weather Service. The shelter at the Days Inn will have up to 40 rooms available each night through the contract with the city, and potentially more if needed, according to McGuire. He said check-in will begin at 6 p.m. and check-out will be at 8 a.m., though those times could be adjusted by volunteers if needed.

McGuire said how long the $50,000 in funding lasts would depend on how many rooms are being used, but it’s expected the funding will last until at least Jan. 15. He said the City Commission will discuss other funding sources for the program at its meeting Jan. 5.

Donations of masks, sanitizer, temporary cell phones, microwaveable meals, plastic cutlery, and laundry detergent are needed and can be dropped off at the Days Inn between 4 and 6 p.m. Monetary donations to the Winter Shelter Fund can be made via the Douglas County Community Foundation website at dccfoundation.org/fund/Winter-Shelter-Fund.


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