With only one organization signed up so far, city needs more volunteers to open emergency winter shelter

photo by: Kim Callahan/Journal-World

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

With only a month until it is scheduled to open its emergency cold-weather shelter, the City of Lawrence needs to find several dozen additional volunteers if the shelter is to open as planned.

This is the second year the city plans to operate the Winter Emergency Shelter in the Community Building, 115 W. 11th St., in downtown Lawrence. To provide more consistency with volunteer shift coverage this winter, the city has been reaching out to churches and other community organizations with the hopes that organizations will sign up to cover one day of the week throughout the 3.5-month period that the shelter will be open. So far, only one organization has volunteered to cover a weekly shift, leaving six nights of the week uncovered.

The shelter is scheduled to open on Dec. 1, and the city hoped to have all the shifts covered by the end of October. The city announced in a news release on Thursday that if more organizations do not volunteer, the city may not be able to open the shelter this winter. Mitch Young, park district supervisor, said each night is broken into three shifts, and the city needs eight to nine volunteers each evening. With only one night of the week filled, the city will need dozens of volunteers to come forward.

Though individuals or couples not associated with an organization are still welcome to volunteer, Cicely Thornton, homeless programs project specialist, said that the city has been encouraging organizations to take a night throughout the season because having individuals sign up for shifts resulted in a lot of inconsistency. The city’s Housing Initiatives Division sent letters to about 140 religious, advocacy and service organizations in the community attempting to recruit volunteers, and so far the Lawrence United Methodist Church has signed up to provide volunteers on Mondays throughout the winter.

Young said the city has about 10 regular volunteers, who could be used to supplement the numbers if an organization wants to take a night but doesn’t have the eight to nine people available that are needed. The three shifts are 7 to 11 p.m., 11 p.m. to 5 a.m., and 5 to 8 a.m.

Individuals or community groups interested in volunteering can learn more about the program by emailing the city’s homeless programs team at homelessprograms@lawrenceks.org. Thornton said individuals interested in volunteering can also sign up for shifts using an online signup system.

Young said the city planned to hire two staff members to help support the winter shelter at the Community Building. The city will also continue to run its outdoor campsite in North Lawrence, which Thornton said has between 77 and 90 people staying there. The city has estimated that between 150 and 170 people are currently living unsheltered outside.

Young said the shelter would be open every night, as opposed to just on nights where the overnight temperature drops below 35 degrees, as in past years. The shelter will be open from 8 p.m. to 7 a.m. every day from Dec. 1 through March 12 and will have a capacity of 75 people per night.

The 75-person capacity is more than the 40-person capacity last year, and in addition to recently approved city code waivers, the Lawrence City Commission will have to approve a special use permit to enable the shelter to operate with 75 people. The permit is on the agenda for the commission’s meeting on Tuesday.

This will be the fourth year that the city and/or volunteers will help operate a temporary overnight cold-weather shelter following a capacity reduction at the Lawrence Community Shelter in 2019. The Community Shelter has the capacity to serve 125 people generally and 140 during cold weather, but a shelter leader recently told the City Commission that the shelter could not expand beyond the 50 beds currently being provided without additional funding and staff.

Apart from volunteers to help run the emergency shelter, Thornton said the city is also collecting supplies. The emergency shelter will need 70 brown bag snack bags daily to hand out to people who stay the night at the Community Building, and the city is accepting donations of nonperishable, individually packed foods. Examples of needed items include Chex Mix, protein bars, dried fruit, trail mix, pretzels, beef jerky and Uncrustables (prepackaged peanut butter and jelly sandwiches). Cold-weather and personal hygiene supplies, such as gloves, hats, socks, wipes and Kleenex packs are also needed. All supplies may be dropped off with the Housing Initiatives Division, which is at the city’s Planning and Development Services offices at 1 Riverfront Plaza, Ste. 320.


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