Lawrence City Commission to consider allowing temporary homeless shelters to operate in schools and other locations

photo by: Mike Yoder

Lawrence City Hall, 6 E. Sixth St., is pictured Thursday, July 7, 2016

City leaders will soon consider a code amendment that would allow schools, event centers and recreation centers to house temporary homeless shelters.

As part of its meeting Tuesday, the Lawrence City Commission will consider a text amendment that would expand the potential locations of temporary shelters, which are meant to give those sleeping outdoors day and/or overnight shelter during the winter months. Currently, only churches and other religious organizations can operate such shelters.

The City Commission directed staff earlier this year to consider options to increase occupancy limits and locations for temporary shelters. The changes aim to address a higher need for temporary shelter space during the winter due to capacity reductions at the local homeless shelter. As the Journal-World reported last winter, one temporary cold-weather shelter at a local church housed as many as 43 homeless people rather than turning people away.

If approved by the commission, the additional locations would also be able to operate temporary shelters without applying for a special use permit, according to a city staff memo. Temporary shelters are allowed to operate up to 120 days per year and, following changes approved earlier this year, can house up to 40 occupants as long as the building has adequate space to do so. The expansion of potential temporary shelter locations could be approved on first and second reading as part of Tuesday’s meeting, enabling such shelters to open up in the coming days, once the change is published.

The commission approved the increase in the occupancy limits for temporary shelters in September. Previously, all shelters could house only 15 people. Now, temporary shelter areas of at least 1,500 square feet can house up to 20 people, and shelter areas of at least 3,000 square feet can house up to 40 people.

In addition to churches and other religious organizations, a city report states that city planning staff has determined that schools, event centers and recreation centers would also be appropriate for temporary shelters. The report states those locations are likely to have the life-safety elements, such as adequate space, fire suppression/sprinkler systems and access to hygiene facilities, that a temporary shelter may need.

“The above listed uses were selected as they balance the desire for sheltering housing-insecure individuals with the need to keep potential occupants safe,” the report states.

Apart from shelter, existing city code allows temporary shelters to provide various services, including accessory food services, social services, counseling, medical services, personal hygiene, telephone or computer services, and storage of personal belongings, according to the report. Other training and assistance can also be provided, such as skills training, employment assistance or educational assistance. Temporary shelters can also provide a workplace for shelter occupants as long as the zoning district in which it is located already permits the use.

City staff and the Planning Commission are recommending the change in part because of the reduced capacity at the Lawrence Community Shelter, according to a city staff memo. The shelter initially reduced its capacity in Aug. 2019 due to budget issues, and continues to operate at a lower capacity in an effort to prevent spread of the coronavirus. Those who work with the homeless have told the commission the reduction has contributed to an increase in the number of unsheltered homeless people, and it’s estimated that there are more than 100 people sleeping outdoors. Many of those people have been camping near the Kansas River and on city parkland.

The City Commission will convene virtually at 5 p.m. Tuesday with limited staff in place at City Hall, 6 E. Sixth St. The city has asked that residents participate in the meeting virtually if they are able to do so. A link to register for the Zoom meeting and directions to submit written public comment are included in the agenda that is available on the city’s website, lawrenceks.org.

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