Efforts to shelter 100-plus homeless people sleeping outdoors ramp up as temperature drops

Proposed code change would allow more organizations to provide temporary shelter

photo by: Mike Yoder

The Lawrence Community Shelter, 3655 E. 25th St., is pictured in this file photo from 2015.

As the temperature drops, new programs and potential changes to city code are in the works to help shelter more than 100 homeless people who are currently sleeping outside.

The Lawrence Community Shelter continues to operate at reduced capacity in an effort to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, but federal relief funding has helped created new voucher and rental assistance programs, and city code changes could allow more organizations to temporarily shelter homeless people on cold nights.

City leaders will soon consider a code amendment that would allow schools, event centers, recreation centers and other such buildings to house temporary overnight homeless shelters, which are allowed to operate up to 120 days per year. City staff is recommending the change because of the reduced capacity at the Lawrence Community Shelter and other factors, according to a city staff memo.

“The changing conditions of declining occupancy at the main shelter, economic, and other factors such as the Covid-19 pandemic, have created challenges in meeting the needs of the homeless community and necessitated the proposed code change,” the memo states.

The City Commission directed staff earlier this year to consider options to increase occupancy limits and/or locations for temporary shelters, and city staff is hoping to have the amendment ready for the commission to consider at its meeting Nov. 3, according to Planning and Development Services Director Jeff Crick. Currently, only churches and other religious organizations can operate temporary shelters without a permit. The commission has already approved an increase in the occupancy limits for temporary shelters, which can now house up to 40 occupants as long as the building has adequate space to do so. Previously, they could house only 15.

Those who work with the homeless have said a reduction in the capacity at the Lawrence Community Shelter has contributed to an increase in the number of unsheltered homeless people, many of whom have been camping near the Kansas River and on city parkland. The shelter’s typical capacity is 125 people, but it is currently only housing 40 in an effort to maintain social distancing during the coronavirus pandemic. Projects are in the works that will provide safer conditions for shelter guests as well as add a tiny home village on the shelter’s property that will house up to 48 people. Although the tiny homes will primarily provide housing for families, they may also be used to isolate people for health reasons.

Lawrence Community Shelter Executive Director Renee Kuhl said that the shelter will not be able to increase its capacity until May, when the tiny home village is scheduled to open. Kuhl said that until then, the shelter is using federal funds to provide hotel vouchers for those needing emergency shelter.

“That’s to bridge the gap basically between now and May, when we launch the tiny homes,” Kuhl said. “Between now and then, hotels are really the safest thing for people.”

The shelter received $100,000 of funding from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, or CARES, to go toward hotel stays. Kuhl said the shelter has already helped get 97 people into permanent housing so far this year — compared to 70 people in 2019 — and that the CARES funding gives the shelter the capability to offer around 45 30-day hotel vouchers. She said that right now that money is funding hotel stays for 17 people. As people move out of the shelter, new guests can be accepted.

“We’re hustling to move people into housing, and as we get people housed we have more capacity,” Kuhl said.

The shelter has also used hotels to quarantine individuals who have COVID-19 symptoms or who may have been exposed to the virus until they receive test results. So far, Kuhl said the shelter’s approach is working. The shelter has not had a guest or staff member test positive for the virus.

In an update provided to the commission last week, Kuhl said that the capital projects at the shelter include renovations to create more private bathrooms, which currently have no stalls and have locker-room-style showers, and a new heating and ventilation system that will improve airflow and include a system that kills pathogens. Kuhl said that work will be completed in different stages, and that the shelter’s immediate approach will be to look for additional funding to continue the hotel voucher program beyond its current expiration date of Jan. 1. She told commissioners if that were not possible, she would try to increase the shelter’s overnight capacity from 40 to 60 people.

Other programs that received CARES funding aim to prevent homelessness. The Housing Stabilization Collaborative is distributing $850,000 of rental assistance to residents whose income has been impacted by the virus, as the Journal-World previously reported.

The city also received $374,000 in funding from the CARES Act to purchase portable trailers that will house campsite facilities and support the provision of social services. The temporary campsite for the homeless will serve about 20 people at a time, who would all be screened and provided targeted social services to identify the support they need to get housed. The campsite is expected to be in place between November 2020 and March 2021 at Woody Park, 201 Maine St. Parks and Recreation Director Derek Rogers said screenings would occur before the opening of the campsite, which is expected to be Nov. 4.

Correction: A previous version of this article misstated the number of people the shelter helped move into permanent housing last year.


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