Family Promise earns Planning Commission’s approval for shelter for homeless families

photo by: Austin Hornbostel/Journal-World

Family Promise Executive Director Dana Ortiz presents to the Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission at its meeting on Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2024.

A request from Lawrence’s Family Promise organization to convert a longtime day care building into a shelter for homeless families was met with resounding support at Wednesday’s Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission meeting.

The Planning Commission voted unanimously to approve a special use permit for temporary shelter use at 200 Mount Hope Court, where Family Promise hopes to open the shelter later this year pending approval from the Lawrence City Commission.

As the Journal-World has reported, the building would be the first dedicated shelter building for Family Promise since its inception 15 years ago. Instead of a traditional shelter building, the agency has partnered with churches throughout the county to house homeless families for one week at a time. But the new property would be able to house up to six homeless families at any given time — with a maximum occupancy of 24 plus staff — and is already equipped with bedrooms, multiple kitchens and a playground for kids.

In their comments ahead of the vote, planning commissioners were clear in expressing their satisfaction with the proposal. One of them was Planning Commissioner Charlie Thomas, who said Family Promise’s work extends far beyond the walls of a church or the boundaries of the City of Lawrence.

“It is such a joy and brings tenderness to my heart knowing how we are connected to one another,” Thomas said. “And I think that is so critically important. Wherever you are on a faith journey does not matter, but the connections and the caring is so important, and I see it in the city, out in the country. We are, in many ways, one body that cares.”

The project didn’t just get a good reception from commissioners. About a dozen members of the public — including leaders with partner church congregations and other social service nonprofits, a family that went through Family Promise’s program about a decade ago and even the current property owner — also expressed support for the project at Wednesday’s meeting, joining dozens of community members who submitted emailed comments of support ahead of the meeting.

The special use permit is tied to the land, not to a specific operator, and that’s one of just a couple of elements of the request that planning commissioners had questions about. But Planning Commission Chair Gary Rexroad pointed out that a provision of a temporary shelter use is that the applicant must provide a management plan describing the services it’ll provide, meaning that if a different agency ever operated the same type of facility on the property, it would have to do the same thing.

Family Promise Executive Director Dana Ortiz told planning commissioners that the organization intends to stick around at 200 Mount Hope Court for quite some time, though, and is under contract to buy the building outright.

The management plan itself asks families to sign off on 26 provisions as part of a participation agreement for the sheltering program. That includes agreeing to seek housing, financial assistance and employment on a daily basis while staying in the shelter program and meeting regularly with staff to discuss progress and for case management meetings.

Ortiz, for her part, said making the decision to find a more permanent space for families to shelter made plenty of sense for Family Promise.

“Our board made the decision to pursue a more permanent sheltering option for families to reduce the trauma,” Ortiz said. “There’s so much trauma to experience homelessness, especially (for) young families. Many of our clients — 60% to 70% year in, year out — are single moms, and to have to rotate each week to a different congregation of faith is really difficult on those little ones and parents.”

From here, the special use permit will be forwarded to the Lawrence City Commission for final approval at an upcoming meeting. Ortiz previously told the Journal-World that remodeling at the facility would begin in the spring and the center would open by the fall of 2024 if the approval process goes as planned.


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