City leaders increase occupancy limits for temporary cold-weather shelters

photo by: Nick Gerik

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

Temporary shelters for homeless people can now house up to 40 occupants as long as the building has adequate space to do so.

As part of its consent agenda Tuesday, the Lawrence City Commission approved new occupancy limits for temporary shelters that typically house homeless people during the winter months. The new occupancy limits are tied to square footage of the building, and they replace the previous rules that set one limit across the board.

Previously, city ordinance limited occupancy of temporary shelters at churches or other religious organizations to 15 clients and five staff members, or 20 people total, for a maximum of 120 days annually. Those limits became an issue last winter, when a temporary cold-weather shelter at a local church housed as many as 43 homeless people rather than turning people away, as the Journal-World previously reported. Vice Mayor Brad Finkeldei said at the time that he was on the Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission when that code was established. He said the 15-person limit was set in part because the organization requesting the ability for churches to house homeless people, Family Promise, was limited to 15 people because it had only one 15-passenger van to transport the guests. Commissioners expressed interest in reconsidering the ordinance at that time.

In June, the commission voted unanimously to move forward with changes to increase the occupancy of temporary cold-weather shelters. The commission did not decide on a new occupancy limit at that time, but asked city staff to bring back more information about what occupancy limits should be based on fire and safety considerations, such as square footage and the number of exits a building has.

The ordinance approved Tuesday has two potential occupancy limits for temporary shelters, depending on a building’s size. Under the new ordinance, 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. The shelters are still limited to a maximum of 120 days of operation annually.


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