Temporary cold-weather shelter for Lawrence homeless continues search for new location; some are camping in freezing temperatures

photo by: Nick Gerik

First United Methodist Church, 946 Vermont St., is pictured Sunday, Dec. 15, 2019.

Updated at 3:20 p.m. Tuesday

A temporary cold-weather shelter for the homeless continues to search for a new building to house the program.

Last week, the Lawrence Winter Shelter announced it would stop operating at the First United Methodist Church and close until it could find a new location. LWS coordinator Kristi Hill said Tuesday that the program, which relies on volunteers and donations, has been in touch with some churches but has not yet found a church to host the program.

“If there is a church that’s willing to at least hear from me, they can email us,” Hill said. She said the program was looking for a church in the downtown area for transportation reasons.

City code allows religious organizations to operate temporary shelters for the homeless without a special-use permit under certain capacity restrictions. Specifically, religious institutions can use their buildings for emergency overnight shelters for as long as four months out of the year. The shelter can have up to 20 occupants, consisting of 15 shelter clients and five support staff members. A special-use permit can be requested if the organization wants to exceed those limits.

The program said in an announcement Thursday that the church had been gracious to allow it to operate there but that the number of homeless people in need had been more than expected and more than was agreed upon with the church.

The Rev. Tom Brady of First United Methodist said that the church did not ask the program to leave. However, he said, First United Methodist did ask the program to follow the agreement it had made with the church, which called for the shelter to stay within the 15-person limit in the city ordinance, among other requirements. Brady said that the agreement also called for the program to open only on nights when the temperature was below freezing and, for safety reasons, to not accept people who had been banned from the Lawrence Community Shelter. He said the program was welcome to continue operating out of the church as long as it followed the agreement.

“We are still willing to take 15 and stay within the ordinance,” Brady said. He added that some people were coming to the LWS program instead of going to the community shelter, and that the program was meant to provide temporary, cold-weather overflow and not be an alternative to the community shelter.

In a recent letter to parishioners, which Brady shared with the Journal-World, he writes that the number of guests allowed, as well as the ratio of volunteers to guests, had created unsafe circumstances. He said the church assumes the liability and responsibility for the program.

Hill said that when the LWS first opened in December, the weather was milder and capacity wasn’t as much of an issue. However, she said that when winter storms hit in January, 30 or more homeless people showed up at the church’s door looking for a place to sleep. She said she could not in good conscience turn people away.

After the program left the church, Hill said that she worked with the Drop-in And Respite (DARE) Center, Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center and the Lawrence Community Shelter to find overnight shelter for the people who had been using the LWS. She said some people were able to stay at the community shelter or make other temporary arrangements, but arrangements could not be made for everyone and eight people were provided with tents for camping. She also said some people had been banned from the community shelter or did not want to stay there.

“I met with every single person that stayed with us on Thursday and got a plan at least, just so that people had somewhere to be or go, and that included tents,” Hill said.

After a budget shortfall led to a capacity reduction at the community shelter and left many homeless people sleeping outdoors, the shelter and several local organizations and community members helped to establish the LWS program, which opened on Dec. 15. On Jan. 14, the Lawrence City Commission voted unanimously to provide the community shelter an additional $31,000 this year to temporarily increase its cold-weather capacity until mid-April. The additional funding was allocated to enable the shelter to increase capacity by 15 beds on nights when the temperature drops below 40 degrees.

The community shelter’s executive director, Renee Kuhl, said in an email to the Journal-World Monday evening that the shelter has now added the additional beds and has a capacity of 105. Kuhl did not immediately respond regarding when those beds were first opened up or whether the shelter currently has any space available.

Hill noted that the LCS, Family Promise and the Willow Domestic Violence Center all help provide emergency shelter in Lawrence. However, Hill said that there will always be a need for a temporary winter shelter and she thinks the community needs to plan ahead to provide one next winter.

“I do think the county and the city need a second tier of support,” Hill said.

Hill said any religious organizations in the downtown area interested in hearing more about the Lawrence Winter Shelter program can email the program at lawrencewintershelter@outlook.com.


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