Homeless shelter remains at reduced capacity as temperatures fall, launches new fundraising campaign with $20,000 match

photo by: Jackson Barton

The Lawrence Community Shelter is pictured Friday Aug. 9, 2019.

As overnight temperatures fall below freezing, leaders at the local homeless shelter say their phones have been ringing with people hoping to find an open bed. And for now, the shelter has no good news.

Lawrence Community Shelter Executive Director Renee Kuhl said that since the weather turned colder, the shelter is getting 10 to 15 calls daily asking if there is room. Kuhl said because those selected to remain at the shelter after its recent capacity reduction are the most vulnerable, they are also the most difficult to house.

“We’re at capacity all the time,” Kuhl said. “We are only turning over like one bed a week or one family every month or every couple weeks.”

Longtime community advocate Steve Ozark, also a volunteer at the downtown homeless drop-in center, said he was one of the people on the other end of the line, hoping to find a place to stay for some people who use the center during the day but have nowhere to go at night. He said the community needs to know that there are people sleeping outside with nothing but blankets, and something needs to be done immediately to fill the gap of beds in the community.

“We don’t need somebody to die over this,” Ozark said. “We need to fill this gap.”

The Lawrence Community Shelter, 3655 E. 25th St., reduced its capacity this summer by about half, from 125 to 65 people. Shelter leaders have said the shelter can’t afford to fund the staffing levels needed to safely operate at full capacity. The shelter has begun a new fundraising campaign — with an anonymous donor providing $20,000 of matching funds — with the goal of increasing wintertime capacity beginning on Nov. 15. But Kuhl and others say the community needs to take immediate action to get people out of the freezing overnight weather.

Earlier this year, the shelter increased the required number of staff who work directly with guests from two to four people. The staffing change was based on recommendations from a consultant hired by the city and Douglas County. The shelter subsequently requested a funding increase from both local governments, but that increase was not fully funded and the shelter decided to reduce capacity rather than go back to running the shelter at full capacity with only two staff members working directly with guests, as the Journal-World previously reported. The shelter stopped taking new residents in early August, and the capacity reduction went into full effect on Aug. 30.

A new fundraising campaign

The shelter has launched a new fundraising campaign, Shelter From the Cold, and Kuhl said all the proceeds from that campaign will go toward increasing the capacity at the shelter for the winter. The shelter is seeking to raise $75,000 total, and a donor who wants to remain anonymous has pledged to match $20,000 if the shelter is able to raise $20,000 by Nov. 15. Kuhl said if the shelter is able to raise the money in time and receive the match, it will be able to increase its capacity to 90 beds. She said if the shelter is able to raise the entire $75,000, she hopes to maintain the 90-bed capacity through April 15.

Once the shelter announced the capacity reduction, there was a swell of community support, as the Journal-World previously reported. Kuhl said she didn’t have a current tally of how much money the shelter had raised since the announcement, but one citizen-driven Facebook campaign alone generated about $13,500, according to the campaign page. Kuhl said the shelter used funds raised since the announcement just to keep the shelter operating at the 65-bed capacity.

The Journal-World asked Kuhl what should be done in the immediate term — today and tomorrow — as overnight temperatures fall below or close to freezing and if it was an option to allow additional people to stay the night at the shelter during cold weather since it has the extra beds available. In addition to just a place to sleep, the shelter provides three daily meals and support services, and Kuhl said the preference is to provide full support to guests so the individual causes of each guest’s homelessness can be addressed and permanent housing can ultimately be achieved.

“I would rather provide people with that resource because then I know that I can do something about their homelessness, right?” Kuhl said. “So I would rather the shelter assign people beds and do what we can do to help people get housed and coordinate their care.”

However, she said if the money is raised, that option is not off the table and the shelter could have a conversation with community partners about what is needed. In the meantime, Kuhl said the community needs a plan B.

Kuhl said she would like to see the county and city organize the emergency weather response, and said potential ideas could be using churches, government buildings such as recreation centers, or even a stationary city bus for overnight shelter.

“I think the huge problem right now is that the city and county have allowed beds to be cut at the shelter because of funding,” Kuhl said. “And then they haven’t put any plan B in place for people for the winter, so there is no other shelter option for them.”

A plan B

Exactly how many people are currently unsheltered is difficult to pinpoint, but local surveys suggest it is likely dozens.

It is possible to use local government or religious institution buildings as temporary overnight shelters, though the process is much easier for the latter. Religious institutions such as churches can temporarily — for as long as four months out of the year — use their buildings for emergency overnight shelters for a limited number of people.

Specifically, under city code, religious institutions are permitted by right to operate a temporary shelter as an accessory use, according to Planning and Development Service Director Scott McCullough. The shelter can be operated up to 120 days per calendar year and can have up to 20 occupants, consisting of 15 shelter clients and five support staff. A special-use permit can be requested if the organization wants to exceed those limits.

Family Promise of Lawrence, which serves homeless families with children, is one such organization that uses that allowance, according to its website.

Religious institutions are the only organizations that can temporarily shelter homeless people without a permit. Other entities, including local governments, would need to obtain a special-use permit if they want to use their building as a shelter and such a use is only allowed in certain zoning districts, mostly non-single-family residential districts, according to McCullough. The organization would need to submit a management plan and a site plan as part of its permit application.

The annual “point-in-time” survey is a count of sheltered and unsheltered homeless people on a single night in January. This January, the survey recorded 396 homeless people, 73 of whom were unsheltered. Mathew Faulk, supportive housing program manager for Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center, said that since the shelter reduced capacity, he can confidently say there are more than 73 unsheltered people now. He said that includes people living in the state park and other legal camping areas, as well as people camping elsewhere. He said his team at Bert Nash is also seeking monetary donations or in-kind donations of tents, sleeping bags, hand warmers, cold weather gear and such to assist people who cannot access shelter.

Ozark said the current situation is inhumane, and something needs to happen immediately. He said the city needs an emergency location available for extreme weather, and right now he does not know of one. When talking with some homeless people at the drop-in center this past week, as overnight temperatures fell into the 20s, he said they took their situation matter-of-factly and just seemed to be trying to do what they needed to do to stay warm and stay alive.

“I’m not trying to point fingers or blame anybody, but I just think it’s unforgivable,” Ozark said. “I’m standing out here right now in my coat going, ‘Could I sleep in this?'”


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