Lawrence City Commission approves spending $1.84 million to purchase land, small cabins for homeless shelter project

photo by: City of Lawrence screenshot

The Lawrence City Commission convenes at City Hall for its March 21, 2023, meeting.

After hearing from dozens of residents who asked them to delay the process, Lawrence city leaders have approved spending $1.84 million related to the city’s recently announced plans to purchase the site of a former private school along North Michigan Street to house a village of temporary shelters for people experiencing homelessness.

As part of its meeting Tuesday, the Lawrence City Commission voted 4-1, with Vice Mayor Bart Littlejohn opposed, to approve a $725,000 contract to purchase the property at 256 North Michigan St.; 5-0 to waive the city’s bid requirements for the $1.11 million purchase of the shelter structures; and 4-1, with Littlejohn opposed, to temporarily suspend enforcement of city zoning and other codes to allow the temporary shelters. While commissioners generally acknowledged the frustration of some residents and the need to further involve them in upcoming planning, they expressed a resolve to address the city’s issue of homelessness.

Commissioner Amber Sellers said the community has failed to adequately address homelessness and that as commissioners they’ve been waiting for the moment to make a decision that impacts the issue. Sellers said she saw the decision as a starting point, and an opportunity to address the issue head on after years of not doing so.

“It’s put right in front of us, what we’ve been putting behind us and hiding in the woods,” Sellers said.

Many residents indicated they were supportive of the city’s efforts to address homelessness, but they criticized the short notice regarding the decision and the lack of prior communication with nearby neighborhoods. Some said they didn’t think a residential area was an appropriate place for the project. City officials announced last Wednesday that city commissioners would be asked to approve the purchase of the 3.5-acre property at 256 N. Michigan St., which is the former site of Veritas Christian School.

The site is part of the Pinkney Neighborhood, is across the street from the Woodcreek Townhomes and Woodcreek Condos, and is near the Children’s Learning Center. The Riverridge subdivision is also located north of the site. The commission heard approximately two hours of public comment from dozens of residents, some posing questions and others concerns.

Pat Miller, speaking on behalf of the Pinkney Neighborhood Association, said the PNA has a strong history of supporting efforts to help those experiencing homelessness — the neighborhood was the site of the city’s first temporary campsite in 2020 — but that the proposal raised too many questions regarding neighborhood impacts without adequate time to discuss them. Miller noted that in the city’s announcement of the plan last Wednesday, it stated that it was committed to working with the surrounding neighborhood to make the project a successful addition, but that at that point the city had not contacted the neighborhood.

“However, there was no communication between the city and the neighborhood before this announcement, and we don’t feel that that is really working together to address this issue,” Miller said.

Miller asked the commission to delay the vote until the city could meet with Pinkney residents and address their concerns. In a letter to the commission, PNA representatives provided a list of concerns, including security of the site and neighborhood safety; anticipated negative impacts on property values; the distance of the site from grocery stores and other retail; the level of detail about the long-term management of the site; the level of detail regarding plans to transition the temporary shelters’ residents to permanent housing; and the continued impact of homelessness and projects to address homelessness on neighborhoods in eastern Lawrence. Miller also asked that there be a point of contact for residents, businesses and users of the nearby city trail system to report and respond to issues.

The proposed site of the temporary Pallet Shelter Village is directly across the street from Woodcreek Townhomes and Woodcreek Condos. Margretta de Vries, HOA board president of the Woodcreek Townhouse Association, also asked for the city to delay the process, citing various neighborhood concerns, including the effect on property values.

“People are very worried because no one will want to buy a home across from the Pallet Shelter Village,” de Vries said.

De Vries submitted all the email messages she has received from Woodcreek residents. She said one of the themes throughout all of the comments is that the city has not done enough to gain neighborhood and community support for the site and is rushing to make decisions in the wrong order.

The commission also heard from several representatives of the Children’s Learning Center, a nonprofit child care center that serves infants though kindergartners. Cecelia Courter, the center’s executive director, said the center is 1,200 feet from the proposed site. Courter said even if it is safe, there was a perceived risk, and she had already heard from 10 of the 77 families at the center that they would look for different child care if the project were approved. She said because of the lack of communication from the city, she could not answer families’ questions, such as whether there would be background checks or whether sex offenders would be allowed to live at the site.

“I can’t guarantee any of that to the parents because I don’t know anything about it,” Courter said, adding that the center has long been part of the community and deserved the city’s due consideration. “We have provided a needed service for 54 years, and we weren’t asked once how it would affect us.”

A handful of residents also pushed back against some comments they said expressed prejudice against those experiencing homelessness and further stigmatized that population. Dustin Stumblingbear said comments that implied that those experiencing homelessness were inherently unsafe were dehumanizing; Chris Flowers said that the perceived threat some had spoken to was prejudice; and Phoebe Clark said she had heard comments that created division and fear.

“Don’t listen to that fear, and don’t listen to the bigotry,” Clark said.

Speaking to the concern about locating near the child care center, Commissioner Brad Finkeldei noted that there are child care organizations across the country, including in Lawrence, that operate alongside services for people experiencing homelessness. Finkeldei said that included the Ballard Center in North Lawrence, which has a food pantry in the building, and the Headstart program in Plymouth Congregational Church, which is 600 feet from the DARE drop-in center. Finkeldei also spoke to the concerns with the process, calling it a chicken-and-egg scenario because the city could not develop plans for the project before identifying a location.

“To me, this is the beginning of the process, not the end of the process,” he said. “… There will be lots of other touch points before we get there.”

Mayor Lisa Larsen expressed a similar thought as Sellers. Larsen said while the process was messy, the city was working to address the issue of homelessness head on.

“I think this is what it looks like when you’re actually starting to hit something head on and hard,” Larsen said. “… We’ve done it on the periphery for a few years and we’re starting to get to the heart of it.”

Littlejohn, who lives in the Pinkney Neighborhood and was formerly the president of the neighborhood association, said that he thought it was a good project, but that he wanted his no vote to communicate that the city needs to start looking at other places to put such projects.

“It just seems like a lot of this has been tilted toward North Lawrence, Pinkney, Brookcreek, East Lawrence,” he said.

The city intends to demolish the buildings currently on the former Veritas site and use the property to locate the temporary shelters and various support facilities. The project will feature up to 75 small pre-fabricated shelters, which include heating and cooling and can be erected quickly to provide private shelter for people experiencing homelessness. Residents will be provided full social services and the site will be supported 24/7 with on-site staff. The city expects to use the shelter village for three to five years while other housing options, including transitional, supportive and affordable housing, are being developed in the community.

The resolution approved by the commission temporarily suspends enforcement of its land development code, international building code and international fire code to allow for the shelter village. Planning Director Jeff Crick said that this form of temporary sheltering was only recently developed, and the shelters could not be envisioned or anticipated by current codes. The suspension of the codes will last for one calendar year, after which time the commission can evaluate whether to extend it or let it expire.

The land and the shelters will be paid for using federal pandemic aid, coming from $4.5 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds the commission set aside in December to cover the village and other efforts to address homelessness.

An estimate regarding the operating costs for the village, specifically when it comes to staffing, utilities or any other significant operational costs, has not yet been provided. Danelle Walters, housing initiatives manager for the city, said the city would be putting together a request for proposals for an operator of the site, and that the plan would come back to the commission for consideration.


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