As Lawrence’s hotel shelter program shuts down, many homeless people are expected to return to camping

Local coalition hopes more coordinated strategy can find them homes

photo by: Rochelle Valverde

Greg Long, a guest at the city's hotel shelter program, stands in front of the Days Inn, 730 Iowa St., on March 4, 2021.

A woven blanket is neatly hung like a curtain inside the window of the covered truck bed, a space that provides only enough room to crouch but for years has served as one man’s home.

Edward, who did not want to use his last name, said that when he checked into the city’s hotel shelter program this winter it was the first time he’d had four walls and a door since at least 2005. An older man with a wiry white and gray beard poking out from his mask, Edward said he’d been living in his truck when he had a stroke in early February, and it was someone at the hospital who told him about the program.

Edward’s story is just one that emerges from the hundreds of people who have taken a room for the night at the city-funded hotel shelter program this winter. The program, which opened Dec. 23 and had its last night Friday, was coordinated by the city, the faith group Justice Matters and the Coalition for Homeless Concerns. Since it opened, the program has provided 8,711 overnight stays in as many as four hotels to an estimated 600 people, according to information gathered by the city and the coalition, respectively.

Edward, wearing a headlamp around his neck even though he is standing in the hotel parking lot, said he was usually fine sleeping in his truck, even in cold weather. He said he has three or four sleeping bags and a down quilt to keep warm. But, straining this day against the noise of passing traffic, he admits his voice has remained weak and his step unsteady since his stroke. He said when he checked out of the hospital on Feb. 9, amid frigid temperatures, it was nice to have a place to shower, lie down and watch TV as he recovered instead of sleeping in the truck bed.

“I’m not too sure I could have crawled in and out of there very easily,” he said.

The program, which last winter was run by the coalition in local churches, was operated out of hotels this winter to provide a safe shelter for homeless people during cold weather. Individual hotel rooms didn’t involve a congregate setting that could put people at risk of contracting COVID-19. While the program has offered safe shelter, it has also helped program volunteers gather information about the guests — in the hopes of possibly housing them before next winter.

“The last 70 days at Days Inn and other hotels has done more to convince me that we have to do this in our community,” said John Krehbiel, one of two volunteer coordinators for the program.

Looking for trends

Some of the volunteers have been interviewing guests who are willing, and have collected demographic and other information from 101 people. Though every story is different, some common issues have emerged.

Guests have ranged from a man who had been homeless nearly 20 years to a woman who became newly homeless when she abandoned her trailer after her pipes burst. There were men with long-running alcohol and drug abuse issues and young women with small children. There were many people who had lost their IDs and other personal documents while homeless and didn’t know how to start again.

photo by: Leah Evans contributed photo

Ben MacConnell, lead organizer with the faith group Justice Matters, interviews a guest at the hotel shelter at Days Inn on March 5, 2021.

Specifically, of the 101 guests who were interviewed, about 72% reported they were chronically homeless or had been homeless more than one year or a total of one year over a three-year period, according to data from the coalition. About 67% were white and 33% were people of color; 14% had served in the U.S. military; 30% had been the victim of domestic violence; and 51% did not possess a valid form of identification.

Tony Kaufman, the other volunteer coordinator of the program, said that not having any identification, as well as having felonies on their record — sometimes because they decided to plea bargain rather than go to trial — were some of the common issues making it difficult for many of the program participants to get out of homelessness. Kaufman said having a felony made it almost impossible for some to find a job or be approved for a lease.

“That was a theme with several of our guests,” Kaufman said. “If they were just given a chance to get a job, they want to work, but they just can’t. And basically then you give up after a while and so you just live on the streets.”

Tough rental standards in Lawrence also affected some without criminal histories to contend with. Kaufman said there were guests who had income from disability benefits but still could not find someone to lease to them because they didn’t have adequate rental history.

Needs also varied among guests; some stayed at the program a few nights, while others stayed a few weeks. At its low, which occurred the first day the program was open, the program sheltered 35 people. After several nights of subzero temperatures in February, the program housed as many as 236 people.

Greg Long, another guest at the program, said he had been homeless off and on for 18 years. Long, who had a ready grin as he stepped out of the check-in line to talk, said that before the program opened he had been camping. He said he’d been staying in the hotel most of the winter, which has been a relief.

“This was a blessing, 100%,” Long said. “I’ve never seen Lawrence do something like this.”

The city spent about $307,000 to operate the temporary winter shelter out of hotels this winter, and community members donated another $24,000 toward the program, according to information from the city. In addition to the coalition and the help of dozens of community volunteers, the city partnered with the Days Inn, 730 Iowa St., and the hotel’s property managers, Ken and Annie Patel. The city negotiated lower rates, cleaning and other fees with the Days Inn, which served as the check-in location and primary base of the program, though when rooms ran out there guests were placed in other hotels.

When dangerously cold temperatures hit the area in February, the city expanded the program to allow guests to stay during the day. Parks and Recreation Director Derek Rogers, who helped administer the program, said in an email to the Journal-World that the service provided was essential to ensure people were protected during the cold weather and that shelters didn’t contribute to the spread of the coronavirus. He said the program’s success required the support of city staff, the coalition, volunteers and hotel owners.

“The Winter Shelter Program couldn’t have been a great success without the support and collaboration of many community partners,” Rogers said.

Finding solutions

Apart from helping to check guests in and out, handing out meals and staying overnight at the hotel to attend to any issues, members of the coalition interviewed 101 guests to create a list of program participants, their demographic information and relevant details about their situation to share for housing assistance. The list is meant to be coordinated among social service providers as part of a housing-first strategy known as “Built for Zero,” which aims to quickly house people and use the list to address their individual needs so that local social service organizations can help them stay housed.

Kaufman said in talking with the guests, waiting with them for dinner and giving them rides, he’s gotten to know them and really believes if they were just provided housing and the right support, they would be capable of staying housed.

“We’ve been able to really learn a lot about their situations,” Kaufman said. “One thing that really just strikes me is I believe that so many of these people are capable; they just need a break or two.”

Those involved with other organizations that serve the homeless, including the Lawrence Community Shelter and the homeless outreach team at Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center, have also recently spoken to the Journal-World about how to help the city’s unsheltered homeless population, and also discussed the importance of housing-first strategies. However, to succeed, those leaders said, such strategies require robust social services — and the funding to support those services — so people have the support they need to stay in that housing.

Though the funding could appear to be a barrier to housing-first strategies, the coalition doesn’t see it that way. Krehbiel emphasized that some cities have found that funding a housing-first strategy and decreasing the number of homeless people can actually be less expensive in the long run than just managing the issue and its other societal effects.

“The most expensive bed per night in Lawrence, Kansas, is the jail, and the second most expensive bed per night is the hospital, and the third most expensive bed per night is Lawrence Community Shelter,” Krehbiel said. “We believe it will cost us less to end homelessness than to manage it, if you think about it in those terms.”

According to the 101 people interviewed, about half had been camping and the other half had been sleeping in vehicles before the program began. Though Rogers said a few of the guests at the hotel would be going to a city-run campsite with heated tents at Woody Park, most will not be transitioning directly to another program.

Mathew Faulk, supportive housing supervisor for Bert Nash, said because of limited staff to provide direct housing placement assistance services, and limited funds in respect to the population size, most will return to camping. Faulk said Bert Nash’s rapid rehousing program did receive funding from federal coronavirus relief funds, and staff is working to get as many households into housing as possible, but that it will house only a limited number of people. Specifically, he said, the targeted number of total households that Bert Nash expects to serve with those funds is 80, and that will take many months to accomplish.

Both Long and Edward, who spoke to the Journal-World on the second-to-last night of the program, said they expected to be outdoors again once the hotel shelter program ended.

“I’m going to hate to see it end Friday,” Long said. “It’s been an awesome experience.”

Edward said he thought he was recovered enough from his stroke at this point to move back into his truck, and even said he felt kind of guilty for staying at the hotel when he could have slept there instead. He said the last time he lived in an apartment or house was when he returned to the area to live with his parents, but that since their deaths he’s never had a place to stay.

“They both passed away and the house was sold,” he said. “That was in about 2004, 2005.”

When it comes to the challenges of living in his truck, Edward has had to be strategic. He said he preferred to park near Clinton Lake because he liked the quiet, and when he’s been bothered by authorities he will sometimes go cast his fishing line so he won’t be forced to leave. Another time, when stopped for the night in a parking lot in town, he said he managed to make a police officer smile and let him be after he told him he was just parked there to read his Bible. When the hotel shelter closed, Edward did not have plans for anything more.

“Back in the truck again,” he said.


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