Lawrence shelter taking in more people, but will not return to 125-bed capacity under new housing-first method

photo by: Mike Yoder

The Lawrence Community Shelter, 3655 E. 25th St., is pictured in this file photo from 2015.

The local homeless shelter is beginning to increase the number of people allowed at its facility, but shelter leaders say capacity will not return to the former level of 125 under the shelter’s new housing-focused strategy.

The Lawrence Community Shelter, 3655 E. 25th St., originally reduced capacity at its building in eastern Lawrence to 65 people two years ago amid budget issues and other changes. It further reduced capacity to a maximum of 40 people during the coronavirus pandemic and temporarily housed others in hotels. The shelter also discontinued housing families in its main building during the pandemic.

In a response to questions from the Journal-World, Thea Perry, Isabel Johnson and Ahsan Latif, members of the shelter’s executive board, said that the shelter was again housing families and that currently 50 guests reside at the shelter. Board members said that although they project the shelter will increase the total number of guests to 82 by September, the shelter will not return to its previous capacity of 125. Instead, board members said that the shelter was committed to its new housing-first strategy, which focuses on housing people quickly, as that has been the most effective strategy for addressing chronic homelessness.

“The Lawrence Community Shelter, therefore, will no longer be a 125-bed congregate living facility where homeless individuals and families can be warehoused in a remote corner of town, literally out of sight and too often also out of mind,” board members said in the response.

“For years now, evidence-based best practices have not included congregate facilities, which exacerbate the problem: if the only response is more shelter and more capacity, with higher caseloads for insufficient numbers of overwhelmed case managers, each new shelter or shelter bed will quickly fill up and then remain filled, and homelessness will continue to grow,” they said.

The board’s response says that congregate living situations can be “traumatic, demoralizing and unhealthy” and that people do better in their own home. The response says each person who moves rapidly from the shelter to housing creates another open bed for someone who is currently on the street. The response says if 80 shelter beds turn over three times per year because people have moved into permanent housing, then the shelter serves 240 people and contributes to ending homelessness in the community. The shelter has housed 45 households so far this year, according to the board.

“We constantly strike a balance between sheltering the most people safely (as) possible while also ensuring our caseloads are manageable so we can continue to house guests at record rates,” board members said.

It’s estimated there are more than 200 people experiencing homelessness who are currently unsheltered in Lawrence, many of whom are living in encampments along the Kansas River or in other wooded locations. Though the shelter as well as the city, in conjunction with volunteer groups, operated temporary shelters in hotels this winter, at least one person experiencing homeless died of exposure during a period of extreme cold in February, as the Journal-World reported.

The shelter has the capacity to serve 125 people most of the time and 140 people during the winter. The shelter originally reduced its capacity to 65 people in August 2019 amid budget issues and changes to its staffing model following an outside review commissioned by the city and county, then further reduced the number of people housed at its building in eastern Lawrence to a maximum of 40 people amid the coronavirus pandemic. The shelter received federal coronavirus relief funding to help operate a temporary hotel shelter program during the worst of the pandemic, which allowed it to serve additional guests beyond those allowed at its facility, but that program ended April 1.

Some shelter staff members recently spoke out about various concerns at the shelter, including the environment for staff and guests, high staff turnover, and concerns about capacity, as the Journal-World reported in May. The shelter subsequently commissioned an outside investigation into its executive director, Renee Kuhl, and announced earlier this month that Kuhl was no longer employed at the shelter. More details about the findings of the investigation or the reason for the end of Kuhl’s employment were not disclosed.

It is still not determined whether the shelter’s capacity will increase beyond the projected 82 people for the upcoming winter. For the past two winters, following the shelter’s capacity reduction in 2019, volunteer groups have coordinated to host temporary overnight shelters in churches or hotels.

Board members said the decision about the shelter’s wintertime capacity would be made in September and would depend on the state of the pandemic. The response says that the shelter will be keeping an eye on the public health aspects of the delta variant, especially as the shelter is again housing children. Currently, only children 12 years and older are eligible for vaccination.

“While we are still experiencing a pandemic with rates currently increasing locally, our capacity is constantly re-evaluated with respect to the health and safety of our staff and guests,” board members said.

Families with children are being housed in the recently completed tiny home village on the shelter’s property, Monarch Village. Monarch Village includes 12 tiny homes that can house as many as two adults and two children. The shelter did not request to increase the property’s total capacity of 125 as part of the permit application for the project.

Board members said the first three families moved into Monarch Village last week, that shelter staff are working to open more units every week, and that all the tiny homes will be fully occupied by September.

The city’s recommended budget for 2022 reallocates existing resources to create a new division that would focus on homelessness and housing. The board said it was encouraged by that proposal, and that the shelter welcomed “open, informed, and honest discussion” with all stakeholders in Lawrence and Douglas County.

“We remain confident in the direction of LCS, and our commitment to our mission is stronger than ever,” board members said. “Now is the time to dedicate the community’s fullest resources to tackling the issue of homelessness, and LCS is positioned to be a major contributor to this discussion.”

Contact reporter Rochelle Valverde

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