After $17K in damage, some guests at hotel homeless shelter don’t get to return; city compiles breakdown of damages
photo by: Journal-World File Photos
As costs for damages at a hotel-based winter shelter for homeless people have grown to more than $17,000, those running the program say they are taking away second chances for the guests who have been causing the damage.
The city of Lawrence, which is funding the program, coordinated with the faith group Justice Matters and the Coalition for Homeless Concerns to open the overnight drop-in shelter beginning Dec. 23 at the Days Inn, 730 Iowa St. The effort was meant to provide a safe option in cold temperatures for people sleeping outside. The hotel shelter has recently been serving around 100 people per night, and coalition co-chair Johannah Smith said in an email to the Journal-World that a small number of guests with signs of severe mental illness and chronic addiction have violated the shelter rules and that volunteers were working to address those individuals and others who have caused damage.
While acknowledging the program’s challenges, Smith said the program was helping to prevent deaths like one that occurred on Jan. 1 in Kansas City, Mo., when Scott Eicke, 41, died of exposure.
“The costs of saving lives with an emergency response like a winter shelter is inefficient compared to a coordinated system of care,” Smith said. “However, this is where we are as a community at this moment in time, and the alternative is unconscionable.”
The Lawrence City Commission voted on Tuesday to continue funding the hotel shelter program for now, but because of safety concerns for both guests and volunteers and the significant amount of program funds going toward property damage, commissioners directed city staff to seek alternatives, as the Journal-World previously reported. Specifically, commissioners asked city staff to coordinate with the Lawrence Community Shelter and other local social service organizations in the effort to shelter the more than 100 people currently sleeping outside.
Guests participating in the program are required to sign a participant agreement, which lays out safety protocols for COVID-19 and prohibits use of drugs and alcohol, nuisance, violence and damage to hotel property, according to the agreement. Participants also agree to comply with hotel policies against smoking and pets, among other stipulations.
Major violations such as damage to rooms, furniture and furnishings result in permanent removal from the program, according to information provided to the Journal-World by John Krehbiel, one of the program’s volunteer coordinators, and Derek Rogers, director of the Parks and Recreation Department, which has been helping manage the program. Since Tuesday’s City Commission meeting, the program has been more strictly enforcing program rules.
Initially, some of the guests were given a second or third chance for minor violations or for breaking rules such as the no-smoking rule, according to the information from Krehbiel and Rogers. However, after the concerns raised Tuesday, volunteers have communicated to guests that there are no second chances and they are expected to respect the property and follow the rules. Guests who have to leave the program because of behavior concerns are provided tents and “Bivy” sleeping bags, which have a protective cover.
Smith said those individuals who have caused damage have been referred to social services and banned from the winter shelter. The Journal-World asked Smith what those services include, but had not heard back Friday afternoon.
According to an itemized breakdown of the damages compiled by the city, smoking damages and fines made up $8,750 of the $17,234 in damages incurred from Dec. 23, when the program began, through Tuesday night, or about 51%. The other categories of damage comprise $3,552 of structural damage to rooms or furniture, $2,620 for linens that were damaged or stolen, and $2,312 for damage to furnishings.
According to the city’s contract with Days Inn, the city pays $47 per room and the city is responsible for minor damages; a list of those damages and their charges were agreed upon as part of the contract. That includes a $50 cleaning fee for each violation of no-smoking rules, a $100 cleaning fee for violation of no-pet rules, and specific replacement costs for towels, furniture and other items in the hotel rooms. For major damages and damages not included in the list, the hotel will make a claim to its insurer regarding the damage, according to the contract.
Because of the large number of guests using the program, it has had to expand beyond the Days Inn and is also using rooms at the nearby Super 8 motel, 801 Iowa St., as needed. The city does not have a negotiated contract with the Super 8, and the hotel has been charging the city its standard rates and fees, according to Parks and Recreation Management Analyst Penny Holler. That includes a $250 smoking fee per incident.
Rogers, with Parks and Rec, said Friday afternoon that following the stricter adherence to the participant agreement, fewer damages and policy violations had been reported the past two nights.
The need for coordination
Smith said the challenging situation that the program finds itself in highlights the community’s need for a coordinated system to address each person’s individual recovery needs and barriers to housing. She also noted the speed at which the program was set up and said that the volunteer group meets daily to make adjustments to minimize property damage, improve data collection for long-term collaboration with other providers, plan volunteer training and ensure safety in spite of the challenges of running an emergency shelter during a pandemic.
Volunteers ran emergency winter shelters in local churches last winter after budget issues caused the Lawrence Community Shelter, 3655 E. 25th St., to reduce its capacity in the summer of 2019. The homeless shelter remains at a lower than normal capacity because of the COVID-19 pandemic and the need to space out guests; this year the overnight winter shelter was placed in a hotel for that same reason.
In addition to the winter program run by volunteers, the Lawrence Community Shelter has been running a hotel voucher program at Econo Lodge University, 2525 W. Sixth St., since early in the pandemic. That program also includes case management by shelter social workers and other professionals. Since Dec. 30, the city has also been involved in the program, which was able to provide additional room nights with the help of a grant received by the city. The city is also using coronavirus relief funds to help run a temporary campsite with 20 heated tents in Woody Park.
City staff have stressed that running the overnight winter shelter in a hotel, where guest supervision is limited, is a one-time format because of the pandemic. As part of their meeting Tuesday, city commissioners voted to allocate another $200,000, on top of the original $50,000, for overnight winter shelter programs, but directed city staff to devise ways to use that money beyond the current hotel program. As part of the direction from the commission, the volunteer-run hotel program will continue to receive funding, but staff will be working with social service agencies to identify potential alternatives and to place guests in other programs, including the recently expanded program at Econo Lodge University.