Lawrence City Commission approves code changes that allow temporary homeless shelters to operate in schools and other locations

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Members of the Lawrence City Commission meet virtually for their meeting on Nov. 3, 2020.

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

As part of its meeting Tuesday, the Lawrence City Commission voted unanimously to approve the amendment to expand the potential locations of temporary shelters, which are meant to give those sleeping outdoors day and/or overnight shelter during the winter months. Some members of the public have advocated for more flexibility for temporary shelters, and the commission directed city staff earlier this year to pursue the change.

Vice Mayor Brad Finkeldei said the code changes would help the community provide winter shelters for homeless people, which he said is especially needed amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I think this will give us a lot more options as we look at what we can do, especially during this COVID time when a lot of the churches that were involved last year aren’t even open for their own members, let alone helping the community,” said Finkeldei, who was previously on the boards of Ballard Community Services and Lawrence Family Promise, an organization that assists homeless families.

Prior to the code changes, only churches and other religious organizations could operate such 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. The Lawrence Community Shelter initially reduced its capacity in August 2019 because of budget issues, and it continues to operate at a lower capacity in an effort to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. 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, significantly exceeding the previous limit of 15 people.

The additional locations can 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 now house up to 40 occupants as long as the building has adequate space to do so. Specifically, 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 giving homeless people a place to stay, temporary shelters are permitted under existing city code to provide various services, training and assistance for the people they serve, according to the memo. Temporary shelters can also provide a workplace for shelter occupants as long as the zoning district in which they are located already permits the use.

The commission adopted the code changes on first and second reading as part of Tuesday’s meeting, which will allow the changes to be published and officially go into effect in the coming days.

City Commission Meeting 11/03/20


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