Lawrence City Commission approves spending another $90,000 on hotel shelter program for homeless people

photo by: Meeting screenshot, Lawrence City Commission

Lawrence City Commissioners discuss spending an additional $90,000 on a hotel shelter program during a meeting on Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2021.

Lawrence will be spending another $90,000 on a program to house homeless people in hotels amid frigid winter temperatures.

At its meeting Tuesday, the Lawrence City Commission voted unanimously to approve the additional spending for the program, for which demand has more than doubled over the past two weeks as extreme cold has gripped northeast Kansas. The city has now spent $340,000 in total on the program, and commissioners expect the new funding to keep the program operating through the first week of March.

Background:

As frigid weather increases demand, Lawrence City Commission to consider spending another $90,000 on hotel shelter program for homeless people

“I think we need to continue with the commitment to it and make sure we provide those protective services to those in need,” Commissioner Lisa Larsen said.

The hotel shelter has been open since Dec. 23 and is coordinated by the city, the faith group Justice Matters and the Coalition for Homeless Concerns. It’s intended to provide a safe shelter for homeless people that doesn’t involve a congregate setting that could put them at risk of contracting COVID-19. The city has a contract with Days Inn, 730 Iowa St., with negotiated rates and fees, but so many people have been using the program that the city has had to pay market rates to house people in additional hotels, according to a city staff memo to the commission.

Parks and Recreation Director Derek Rogers told the commission that before the recent cold spell, the program served about 100 people per night. But over the last two weeks, as temperatures fell into the single digits and then below zero, demand for the shelter’s services soared, to the point that it was serving more than 230 individuals per night.

With the current demand and the need to keep the shelter open during the day to avoid dangers of hypothermia and frostbite, the program is currently costing the city about $7,000 per day, according to the memo. City staff anticipates those factors will not change until at least the tail end of this week, when the weather is expected to become warmer.

In addition to its city funding, the program has received donations of money, food and supplies.

Mayor Brad Finkeldei said the program has been more important than ever during the winter storm and deeply cold temperatures Lawrence has experienced in recent days. While the program does come with a cost for the city, he said he suspected that not sheltering homeless individuals would come with an even greater expense to the community in terms of 911 calls and emergency room visits. He also noted that the increased use of the program showed that there were individuals in the community the city didn’t even know about who needed the service.

“I can’t even imagine what situation we would be in if we didn’t have this program up and running,” Finkeldei said.

Some residents who spoke during public comment called on the city to find more permanent solutions to homelessness in the community. While Commissioner Jennifer Ananda said she hoped the city could work toward more permanent solutions, she said the immediate need was to make sure those experiencing homelessness had shelter for the next couple of weeks.

“I agree with commenters on the need (for permanent solutions), but that’s a conversation for another day, and hopefully a day soon,” she said. “But we have to get folks through until our next meeting.”


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