The Village will welcome its first residents on Monday; 35 people experiencing homelessness to move in by March 27

photo by: Austin Hornbostel/Journal-World

The gated entry to The Village, 256 N. Michigan St., is pictured on Friday, Jan. 5, 2024. The site is home to 50 Pallet cabins for people experiencing homelessness.

The Lawrence Community Shelter’s community of Pallet cabins for people experiencing homelessness is less than a week away from welcoming its first residents.

The first residents at The Village, the community of 64-square-foot cabins at 256 N. Michigan St., will move in on Monday, March 18 — a year after the Lawrence City Commission first initiated the process of launching the shelter project. On Tuesday morning, the Journal-World sat down with two LCS leaders to learn more about the plan for opening day and beyond.

“I think for this first group, it’s really important that they set the legacy of how this is going to be, because that is what’s passed down between the guests,” LCS Executive Director James Chiselom told the Journal-World. “… Whatever they say (about) how The Village is this first go-around, that’s what we’ll be up against for the duration until we work hard to change that. We want to make sure we have a good understanding of (their needs).”

By March 27, Chiselom said 35 residents would be living in The Village, and LCS leaders are continuing to interview more potential guests in the meantime. The whole group won’t move in all at once, though; Chiselom said the first group of 11 guests will move in on March 18, then will be given a few days to get acclimated before another similarly sized group moves in. All told, he said the phased move-in process will take place across four groups of residents.

Social service agencies and case managers will be assisting with that on-boarding process, Chiselom said, and they’ll be important partners in helping LCS to focus on its emergency sheltering work.

Melanie Valdez, who served as the interim leader of LCS from April 2022 until Chiselom’s hire in late 2023, was the other shelter leader who spoke with the Journal-World Tuesday. Valdez is now heading the shelter’s HR duties, which include directing the shelter’s staffing patterns. The city, Chiselom and a member of the Pinkney neighborhood handled the hiring process for The Village’s manager, but he and Valdez are working together to hire direct support advocates for its staff. That process is still underway, Valdez said.

“We’ve had to really look at what those roles are going to look like in comparison to what we already have,” Valdez told the Journal-World. “Because we want to make sure as an agency that we’re fluid in our ability to fill roles and responsibilities. So (that means) looking at what’s the difference between a direct support advocate at LCS compared to what is a direct support advocate at The Village.”

Valdez said the shelter has learned that those roles should be the same on the whole, just with different procedures based on their settings. She said with The Village close to opening but still in development, LCS is working on building a team that is able to work independently to build something successful.

That also means being deliberate about looking for the right hires that LCS leadership feels confident about having on board.

“It’s important that we do that, because in my understanding of the camps, the sanctioned camp (Camp New Beginnings in North Lawrence) was a way to respond to a crisis need,” Chiselom added. “We don’t want it to be a response to that. We wanted to be intentional about providing emergency shelter services that are comprehensive and that have a structure to them. Same guests, but different system.”

Chiselom and Valdez emphasized that operations at The Village are intended to allow residents to be as independent as possible, with help from staff to connect with and access the services they may need. It’s part of a goal to model what it’ll be like for residents when they find a permanent place to live.

Chiselom also noted that in an effort to avoid disrupting residents at The Village — and to provide residents with a sense of safety, security and agency around who can come to see them — LCS won’t be accepting any donations at 256 N. Michigan St. Instead, he encouraged anyone interested in contributing to the community to facilitate that through the shelter’s main facility at 3655 E. 25th St. The shelter is also working to develop formal volunteer slots for The Village.

That shelter leaders are even considering how to staff and handle donations at a new site is a far cry from what LCS looked like a year — or even six months — ago, in large part due to the City Commission approving a $2.7 million funding agreement with the shelter for 2024.

Valdez said this is work the shelter has always hoped to accomplish, but simply didn’t have the capacity for until the city’s investment. Before the shelter moved to a shared governance model with the city and Douglas County in September 2023, it was in a dire financial situation. LCS came on board to operate The Village as part of the conditions of that increased funding agreement.

“I will say as a team at LCS, we always felt that we were the right operator for the city’s plans, we were just not in a position to extend ourselves at that time,” Valdez added. “I think with the city putting confidence in us as an agency and helping us (with) increased funding, it allows us to finally do those things that we always felt like we wanted (to) — and could — do.”

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Chiselom said he was especially interested in illustrating that expanding emergency shelter options is a key part of the city and Douglas County’s “A Place for Everyone” plan to end chronic homelessness.

Chiselom said while there’s “a lot of pressure” on the City of Lawrence to close unsanctioned homeless camps, it’s important to note that opening The Village is not the only action it’ll take to initiate the next steps in that process. But having more operational sheltering options is a starting point that city leaders have pointed to as a necessity before it’s viable to close any camps.

And, Chiselom added, opening The Village will allow LCS to begin bolstering the community’s emergency sheltering options in other ways. He said the shelter is already working to expand its 90-day continuous stay program, which currently serves around 30 shelter guests. Chiselom said he’s looking to expand the program by another 30 slots.

“Once we do that, expand shelter, I think we’ll see a significant change in the way we’re addressing guests,” Chiselom said. “We’ll be providing more services, we’ll be providing more meals, and I hope to see behaviors mellow out a little bit. Instead of being up and down, not having some idea of where they’re going to be on a night-to-night basis, I think people will start to maybe get a sense of safety and security.”

Chiselom has previously expressed a desire to expand the shelter’s capacity for continuous-stay guests, part of an effort to develop better relationships with them. He said he has plans for the shelter’s current night-by-night stays that could accomplish that, as well — providing everyone who stays at the shelter overnight with breakfast, rather than just continuous-stay guests who are able to stay in the building all day. Chiselom said that may expand to a lunchtime meal in the future.

Chiselom said the shelter is also hoping to revitalize its move-out program, which provides basic furniture to individuals and families exiting homelessness. The program has been suspended since December, which he said is largely due to the shelter needing to use its warehouse space where furniture donations used to be stored for additional sheltering capacity instead.

The shelter is looking to identify a place to store furniture donations for the program, as well as volunteers who may be able to assist with transporting furniture donations and facilitating moves.

“Our whole mission is centered around getting people housed — that’s the solution,” Valdez said. “So it is a very important program, and it provides a lot of value to the community, but we need help with that.”


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