With as many as 200 people living outside, Lawrence shelter options remain limited as temperatures fall; winter shelter won’t open for weeks

photo by: John English/special to the Journal-World

The city-run encampment for people experiencing homeless is pictured Nov. 13, 2022, in North Lawrence. The campsite lacks electricity and the tents are not heated.

As overnight temperatures drop into the teens, there is still no place for the up to 200 people who are living unsheltered in Lawrence to sleep that is fully protected from the elements.

While the city is working to set up its emergency winter shelter, it is still in the process of hiring staff, and there are no plans to open the shelter ahead of the previously scheduled date of Dec. 1. Lawrence Community Shelter leaders have said LCS is not able to increase its capacity without more funding, and the shelter continues to provide beds for only 50 people.

For Darin Wade, that has meant sleeping outside in a sleeping bag, tucked into an alcove of a storefront on Iowa Street. Wade said he had the business owner’s permission to sleep there, just as long as he is gone by the time the business opens in the morning.

“I have to leave by 8:30 a.m. and then try to find someplace warm,” he said.

Wade, who is from Topeka but has lived in Lawrence in the past, said for a few nights this week he was able to find overnight shelter staying in a church downtown where he is member, but that was only a temporary arrangement. As of Thursday, his plan was to go back to the “nook” in the Iowa Street storefront on Friday night.

“I got a sleeping bag,” he said, when asked about what supplies he had to keep warm.

Wade said he didn’t bother to check with the Lawrence Community Shelter as temperatures began to drop, because whenever he has called recently he’s been told that the shelter is full. Melanie Valdez, interim executive director of the Lawrence Community Shelter, told city commissioners late last month that it would take more money and staffing for the shelter to increase its capacity. Valdez did not immediately return a request from the Journal-World this week for an update on the situation.

For its part, the city has been operating a campsite in North Lawrence and making preparations to open the emergency winter shelter, which it will operate overnight at the Community Building, 115 W 11th St., beginning on Dec. 1. The city’s recreation centers are also available as warming sites during operating hours. The tents at the campsite lack electricity and heating.

photo by: Kim Callahan/Journal-World

The Community Building at 115 W. 11th St. is pictured on Wednesday, Dec. 22, 2021.

Jenn Wolsey, the city’s homeless programs coordinator, said she estimates there are between 170 and 200 people who are currently living outside unsheltered, including about 60 people who are living at the site in North Lawrence.

“We recognize that the cold weather is coming and we also recognize that we have a significant number of unsheltered homeless in Lawrence, and unfortunately our programs alone are not going to serve them all,” Wolsey said.

Wolsey said the city and other social support agencies have been checking on those camping throughout Lawrence on a daily basis and distributing cold-weather gear such as sleeping bags, gloves, hats and “hot hands,” which are disposable hand warmers that heat up for several hours.

Meanwhile, other city staff members are making preparations to open the emergency winter shelter. When asked whether it’s possible to open the shelter any sooner given the weather, Cicely Thornton, the city’s homeless programs project specialist, said the plan is still to open on Dec. 1. Thornton said the city is still in the process of hiring paid staff, gathering supplies and getting volunteers to help support the program, and all need to be in place before the shelter is able to open.

Wade said he didn’t blame the city for the lack of shelter options, and instead pointed to a prohibitively costly rental market created by the city’s student populations and the limited affordable housing options. On Thursday, Wade spoke to the Journal-World again, saying he had found shelter for Friday night — outside Lawrence. He said the church he’d been staying at was going to connect him with an overnight shelter in Salina, where he plans to stay until the shelter at the Community Building opens on Dec. 1. Ultimately, he wants to return to Topeka, and he said a social service outreach worker he met in Lawrence was helping him to find housing there.

Wolsey recognized that everyone else who is living unsheltered in Lawrence, as well as the community at large, also would like to see the situation improve. She said the city saw the need, and she asked for patience as efforts continue.

“We’re listening and we’re working as quickly as we can to continue to provide equitable, dignified services, understanding that unfortunately we are very behind in what we are trying to do,” Wolsey said.


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