For the 200 homeless people currently in hotels and other temporary housing, the needs are ‘above and beyond’ shelter

photo by: Rochelle Valverde

Hotel shelter program volunteer Marci Leuschen hands James Vicks a bag with cup soup and other food as he checks into his hotel room for the night. In the background, John Krehbiel, in navy, one of the program’s volunteer coordinators, helps check-in a long line of guests.

It’s not yet 6 p.m. on Thursday, and already there are a couple of dozen people lined up outside Room 108 at the Days Inn hotel. A few cars idle in the parking lot, one with its back seat cluttered with possessions.

Masks are handed out to those who don’t have them, and the volunteers based in Room 108 start checking people in, writing down each person’s name, taking their temperature and handing out room keys for the night. Some people take a room as a pair, others alone. A mother leads a small child by the hand to their room. When these 40 rooms run out, the people left over will go across the street to stay at the Super 8, 801 Iowa St.

It’s just another night at the winter shelter program at the Days Inn, 730 Iowa St., one of the temporary programs put in place to house homeless people outside of congregate settings during the coronavirus pandemic.

Toward the front of the line on Thursday is James Vicks. His lips are chapped and his hands, marked with fading tattoos, also appear dry and weathered from the cold. What he points out, though, is that his jeans are new, a gift from one of the volunteer coordinators of the hotel shelter program. When asked what events led him to lose his housing, Vicks sighs as if it is a story too long to tell. Instead, he talks about something else: how the volunteer who helped connect him to the program was a “godsend” for him.

“Without John, I would be sleeping in the woods,” Vicks said. “That’s where I was sleeping. He helped me tremendously.”

Two other temporary programs are also housing homeless people. The Lawrence Community Shelter has been running a hotel voucher program at the Econo Lodge University hotel, 2525 W. Sixth St., since early in the COVID-19 pandemic, and the city is using coronavirus relief funds to help run a temporary campsite with 20 heated tents in Woody Park. Together, these programs are helping shelter around 200 people.

But that number includes some of the hardest individuals to help into permanent housing, and social service leaders say specific support is needed if the community doesn’t want to turn people out onto the street in the coming weeks and months, or to find itself in the same situation next winter.

A temporary solution

The city of Lawrence, which is funding the overnight shelter at the Days Inn, coordinated with the faith group Justice Matters and the Coalition for Homeless Concerns to open the shelter beginning Dec. 23. The program at Days Inn and the other temporary programs all have limited funding, and it’s not clear where the participants will go when the programs close their doors.

John Krehbiel, who along with Tony Kaufman serves as volunteer coordinator of the program based at Days Inn, said that first and foremost, the program is meant to provide emergency winter shelter for anyone who needs it. Both Krehbiel and Kaufman helped run smaller emergency winter shelters in local churches last winter, and Krehbiel said having one program this year has shown the extent of the need and given volunteers a better sense of the issues guests are dealing with.

“I do see the needs, and the needs are well above and beyond them just needing shelter on a cold night,” Krehbiel said.

Despite those needs, the future is uncertain for the approximately 200 people being housed in temporary programs. The Lawrence Community Shelter has been running its hotel voucher program at the Econo Lodge since early in the pandemic, but that program will only operate through March. Renee Kuhl, executive director of the shelter, said in an email to the Journal-World that without more support, all of those people would end up back on the streets.

“We need access to other rental assistance immediately to get people out of the (Econo Lodge) and the Days Inn and into housing,” Kuhl said. “Exiting people from a hotel back to the streets is violent and unacceptable.”

But helping people into housing is easier said than done. Kuhl and other homeless service providers emphasized that for many of the people staying in hotels and other temporary shelter programs, there are major barriers preventing them from finding a permanent place to live.

The hardest to serve

For the majority of the people now temporarily housed, finding permanent housing will require more than just money for an apartment or other financial support.

Mathew Faulk, supportive housing supervisor for Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center, said he estimates about half of the homeless people in Lawrence have severe and persistent mental illness and/or substance abuse issues, and he said that’s roughly in line with the nationwide statistics. Faulk, who is part of Bert Nash’s homeless outreach team, said that means there are more than 100 people who have a chronic issue, while others could have criminal records or developmental disabilities that prevent or hinder them from getting housing. In addition to those people who are in temporary programs, he said there are 30 to 50 people still camping outside on their own.

Faulk said for those individuals with chronic issues, the level of supportive services and housing available in Lawrence does not match the level of need in the community. Faulk said those individuals need robust support services, sometimes for a lifetime, and that without that help it’s very rare for them to get out of homelessness.

“If someone is sick, they need a physician; if someone is suffering from severe mental health, severe substance abuse issues — if they have problems — they need help,” Faulk said. “They need services, and the idea that someone who is out there can just miraculously one day get it together and pick themselves up, that doesn’t happen very often.”

To that point, both Faulk and Kuhl said some of the chronically homeless individuals have been placed in housing, only to become homeless again. And for some, even being successful in a shelter setting can be difficult. The shelter bans individuals with a history of violating its rules on behavior and substance use, but Kuhl said there is a process to help those people return if they want to. For those individuals struggling with chronic issues, both Faulk and Kuhl agreed that the community is not meeting their needs.

Though the Lawrence Community Shelter helped find permanent housing for 140 people in the past year, Kuhl agreed with Faulk that many of the approximately 200 people who remain in the hotel and other temporary programs have a history of chronic homelessness and other problems. She said many have been in and out of the shelter multiple times, have been in and out of housing, and are not succeeding because the community does not offer enough of the programming they require.

For those running the shelter based at Days Inn, perhaps one tangible indicator that illustrates this issue is the significant amount of money the city has had to pay for property damage and other fines. From Dec. 23 to Jan. 11, the city has paid $22,237 to cover property damage to the Days Inn and Super 8, according to information provided to the Journal-World by Derek Rogers, director of the Parks and Recreation Department, which has been helping to manage the program. The city negotiated a contract with the Days Inn for room rates and damages, and damage fees from the Days Inn make up a minority of the charges. Specifically, the Super 8 charged about $16,081 of the $22,237 in property damages, or about 72%.

Rogers said that more recently, the city has been encouraging double bunking at the Days Inn so as to reduce overflow to the Super 8, which has helped reduce the program’s expenses. However, Rogers also emphasized that it’s a small percentage of the approximately 100 people served by the program, about 10% to 20%, who have caused the damage. Krehbiel added that when there is destruction or damage, it really isn’t intentional and in many cases is caused by people dealing with a mental health issue.

What is needed

For individuals with disqualifying backgrounds or chronic mental health or substance use issues, the needs are different. Instead of just financial help, those with chronic issues need more robust support services if they are to be successfully housed.

Those who serve people experiencing homelessness coordinate to help find low-barrier housing for those whose issues or history excludes them from other programs. But Kuhl said these efforts have shed light on how scarce this type of housing is. She said most of the chronically homeless individuals being served at the Days Inn, the Lawrence Community Shelter, and by Bert Nash Homeless Outreach are already on a waiting list for so-called “housing-first” programs, such as Bridges, which is run by Bert Nash, or Project Able, which is run by the Lawrence-Douglas County Housing Authority and the county. She said there are currently 145 households on the waiting list for January, but movement off the list into those programs is slow.

“Right now, we only have 22 units funded in the community of the type of housing needed to support most of these households, and they are all full,” Kuhl said.

Kuhl said housing-first programs differ from other low-income housing programs such as Section 8 because they have less stringent requirements and do not exclude people because they have a history of eviction, property damage, substance use, a criminal background or other issues. These programs provide rental assistance coupled with case management to support those with chronic issues.

Faulk said what is needed to reduce the number of unsheltered people is more funding to increase staff for case management and more supportive facilities and housing, including inpatient facilities for mental health and substance abuse recovery housing for men.

“It’s not that these folks are people we can’t serve, it’s that the challenges they have are multifaceted, and what successful service looks like is something our network of services is not set up to provide,” Faulk said.

The community, though, has made some recent strides. As the Journal-World has reported, Douglas County is preparing to open a new behavioral health campus. The campus includes 10 one-bedroom apartments that will be operated by the Lawrence-Douglas County Housing Authority and will serve as permanent affordable and supportive housing for residents with behavioral health issues. A group housing facility, which will be operated by Bert Nash, will provide 12 beds of transitional housing, for between six and 12 months, for those recovering from behavioral health issues. The final piece of the project will be a crisis and recovery center that is expected to be completed before the end of 2021 and to be operating sometime in early 2022.

Faulk said that while those 22 beds would help the situation, those are long-term programs that don’t respond to immediate needs. He said the group housing facility would take 12 people in initially and over the year would probably serve about 30, which he noted would still leave approximately 200 people unhoused. In addition to those currently without permanent housing, Faulk noted that new people become homeless every year, and without addressing the root causes of poverty and others issues of need, that would continue to be the case.

Back at the Days Inn, once guests have been assigned a room for the night, a volunteer hands out bottled water, instant noodles, granola bars, apples and pudding cups from a row of plastic bins. Vicks, who estimated he’d been sleeping in a tent in the woods for about four months before the program began, said that having the hotel room to come to instead has been “awesome.” His dinner items now gathered in a plastic sack, Vicks calls Krehbiel over and thanks him, giving him a hug before going to his hotel room.

Once check-in is over, some volunteers will stay on site all night in case issues arise. Another shift of volunteers will arrive to wake up the approximately 100 guests at 7 a.m. to get them checked out, at least until 6 p.m., when the line to get in from the cold will form again.

For Krehbiel and the other volunteers, there has not been one day since the shelter at Days Inn opened on Dec. 23 that nightly temperatures were above 40 degrees, which would have allowed the program to skip a night. For them, the cycle of check-ins and check-outs covered the Christmas and New Year’s holidays, and will continue until the emergency winter shelter closes for the season. But when temperatures fall again next winter, Krehbiel said his hope is that there will have been systemic change.

“Ultimately, the answer is not to just do this over and over and over again, if you will, slap a Band-Aid on the homelessness problem when winter comes to Lawrence, Kansas,” Krehbiel said. “And we don’t have to. Many communities, even communities much larger than ours, have ended homelessness.”


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