Lawrence Community Shelter leader explains why some beds remain empty while dozens of homeless sleep outside

photo by: Jackson Barton

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

As a temporary cold-weather shelter for the homeless continues to search for a new building to house the program, beds are lying empty at the Lawrence Community Shelter. However, shelter leaders say the solution is not as simple as just allowing more people to stay there.

The Community Shelter, which provides three daily meals and case management for its guests, is allowed under city code to house up to 140 people during the winter. More specifically, the Community Shelter’s special use permit allows the shelter to have a maximum occupancy of 125 people, but an additional 15 people may sleep there when the overnight temperature is 40 degrees or colder, according to Amy Miller, assistant director of planning and development for the city.

But because of budget shortfalls and changes to its staffing model, the shelter is currently only housing 105 people, or 35 fewer people than it has in past winters.

In late December and early January, there was another place for homeless people to sleep during cold nights: the Lawrence Winter Shelter program, which was hosted at First United Methodist Church, 946 Vermont St., and relied on volunteers and donations. The Community Shelter and several other local organizations and community members helped to establish the program, which opened on Dec. 15.

But last week, that program announced that because of capacity issues it would stop operating at the church and would close until it could find a new location. LWS coordinator Kristi Hill, who is paid a stipend to coordinate the program, said in an email to the Journal-World Thursday that LWS had considered using its volunteer staff to operate at the Community Shelter, but decided against it. She said that was not feasible for several reasons, including that some homeless people using the program weren’t able to stay at the Community Shelter.

Hill said some homeless people could not go to the Community Shelter because of their criminal record or because they have previously been banned from the shelter for breaking its rules. Others, Hill said, are allowed at the permanent shelter but don’t want to go there because the number of people overwhelms them or because they don’t want the full services that the shelter provides. She also said transportation to the shelter, which is in eastern Lawrence, can be an issue.

“So many ideas have come our way over the last week or more and we (are) working to thoughtfully consider them, reaching out to those who can help us determine whether the idea is feasible,” Hill said.

When asked whether the LWS program could operate at the Community Shelter, the facility’s executive director, Renee Kuhl, said she would like to see a communitywide model where other local entities operate overnight shelters during the winter at multiple sites. She said she has presented the idea to some city and county staff members, and she hoped a communitywide plan could start being developed now so it could be implemented next year.

The Journal-World asked Kuhl why the Community Shelter didn’t, in the meantime, allow the LWS program volunteers to use its building as an overnight shelter this winter so those sleeping outdoors would be housed. Kuhl said she thought that housing 140 people would put the shelter at an overcrowded level that was not safe. Even with volunteers, she said she would not be able to provide the level of staffing where she is comfortable operating at 140 beds per night.

“When that’s the only shelter option that’s available to people is an overcrowded, unsafe shelter, you protect people from the elements but you expose them to other violence and conditions inside the shelter that threaten their stability, their health and in some cases their life,” Kuhl said.

Kuhl also said the LWS program seemed to be serving a different population than the Lawrence Community Shelter. She said that 35 people stayed with the program the night it announced its closure, and that only six people expressed interest in staying at the Community Shelter when asked and only two showed up.

One of the reasons the LWS program left the First United Methodist Church is because its agreement with the church asked the program to stay within the capacity limits set by city code. City land development code allows religious organizations to operate temporary shelters for the homeless without a special-use permit under certain capacity restrictions. The code allows up to 20 occupants for such temporary shelters, consisting of 15 shelter clients and five support staff members.

The LWS program was not following those guidelines. Hill previously told the Journal-World that during severe weather, 30 or more homeless people were showing up at the church’s doors looking for a place to sleep overnight. She said the program decided not to turn people away.

Hill said that the bottom line was that the LWS program needed to find another church that was willing to work with the project for the month of February and possibly part of March. She said those interested in housing the program could email


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