Proposed health order calls for Douglas County to provide hotel rooms or other off-site quarantine locations for homeless shelters, other congregate living

photo by: Mike Yoder

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

Douglas County leaders will soon consider a health order that calls for the county to provide funding and resources to support off-site quarantine locations for congregate living settings such as homeless shelters.

As part of its meeting Wednesday, the Douglas County Commission will consider an emergency public health order to provide noncongregate shelter options such as dormitories, hotels and motels to shelters and other such agencies to limit the spread of COVID-19.

In a memo to the commission, Emergency Management Director Robert Bieniecki states that in recent weeks community agencies serving homeless and precariously housed individuals have needed to provide temporary isolation housing for those who have tested positive for COVID-19. Bieniecki states that social distancing measures at those agencies have significantly limited the ability to provide adequate spaces within those facilities that do not put staff, other clients and the larger community at risk.

As the Journal-World recently reported, leaders at the Lawrence Community Shelter announced plans earlier this year to increase capacity at the main building in eastern Lawrence, but they later changed those plans after an increase in COVID cases due to the more contagious Delta variant. Specifically, leaders said capacity at the shelter would remain at 40 people so that the shelter had room to quarantine and isolate people who were exposed to the virus or tested positive.

The shelter has the capacity to serve 125 people most of the time and 140 people during the winter. It initially 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 it further reduced the number of people housed at its main building to a maximum of 40 amid the coronavirus pandemic. The shelter received federal coronavirus relief funding to help operate a temporary hotel shelter program earlier in the pandemic, which allowed it to serve additional guests beyond those allowed at its facility, but that program ended April 1.

Bieniecki states in the memo that based on consultation with the housing and human services branch of Unified Command — a group of health and government officials working to address the pandemic — and guidance from Lawrence-Douglas County Public Health, the most feasible solution for isolation in the future is to temporarily house clients in hotel rooms for the designated period of time.

The proposed health order states in part that Douglas County will support noncongregate sheltering options for community members who are homeless, members of treatment programs, or those otherwise currently living in, working in, or exposed to congregate settings, and their household members. That does not include people who are incarcerated in the Douglas County Jail.

The support from the county would include funding to pay for the space in college dormitories and hotel and motel facilities. It would also include providing shelter management and support to the noncongregate sites, including feeding operations, laundry, and cleaning, as well as coordinating the broader system of quarantine and isolation procedures.

If the commission approves the proposed order, county spokesperson Karrey Britt said Douglas County government would provide the financial and other support listed in the order using funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) or the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) if possible. The order would go into effect at 12:01 a.m. on Sept. 9 and remain in force unless it is rescinded or modified by the health officer or the County Commission.

The County Commission will convene at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday at the county courthouse, 1100 Massachusetts St. Residents can participate in the meeting in person, virtually or via phone, and more information about those options is available at


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