City leaders approve $200,000 to provide cold-weather shelter, but alternatives to problematic hotel program will be sought

photo by: Nick Gerik

Days Inn, 730 Iowa St., is pictured Dec. 24, 2020.

City leaders have voted to continue funding a cold-weather shelter for homeless people at a local hotel for now, but because of safety issues and the significant amount of program funds going to repair property damage, they are urging city staff to seek alternatives.

Volunteers running the program and some social service professionals who are not involved with it expressed concerns regarding the security and efficiency of the program at the City Commission’s meeting Tuesday night. Commissioners said they shared those concerns. They voted 4-0, with Commissioner Stuart Boley absent, to allocate another $200,000 for overnight shelter programs, and they directed city staff to devise ways to use that money beyond the current hotel program. City staff was also asked to coordinate with the Lawrence Community Shelter and other local social service organizations in its effort to find a new way to shelter the more than 100 people currently sleeping outside.

“I think everyone would be more than happy to have these people in a safer, better environment,” Mayor Brad Finkeldei said.

Until another solution can be crafted, the funding will continue to go toward the hotel shelter program.

On Dec. 23, the city and a volunteer group coordinated to open the overnight drop-in shelter at the Days Inn, 730 Iowa St., to provide a safe option in cold temperatures for those sleeping outside. However, volunteers expressed concerns about the unsafe or inappropriate behavior of some guests, and about a quarter of the $50,000 of start-up funding the commission previously allocated for the program has been spent to pay for damage to hotel rooms. In addition, usage of the program has far exceeded the availability of rooms at the Days Inn, causing the city to have to rent rooms at a nearby hotel at market rates.

According to updated numbers city staff provided the commission Tuesday, the program has served an average of 101 individuals per night for the last nine nights. Except for the first three nights the program operated, the city has had to rent additional rooms at the nearby Super 8 motel, where rates range from $60.99 to $129.99 per night. Currently, the program is costing about $25,000 per week.

Assistant City Manager Brandon McGuire cited several challenges with the program, including the limited ability to supervise guests, which contributes to both the safety concerns and the property damage. McGuire said property damage has been a significant issue and has occurred almost nightly in guest rooms. In updated figures provided to the commission Tuesday, McGuire said that in 13 days of operation, the program has had to cover more than $12,000 in damage and fines. However, he said that challenges related to the format — and the higher risk of property damage and undesirable behavior — must be weighed against concerns of transmitting COVID-19 in a congregate setting.

Commissioners agreed that because of the immediate concerns regarding the pandemic and severely cold weather, they did not want to discontinue the hotel shelter program yet. However, Finkeldei proposed, and other commissioners agreed, that city staff should actively work with community partners and social service agencies to address the concerns and find alternatives arrangement or programs for those without shelter this winter.

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