Fundraising campaign allows Lawrence Community Shelter to increase its overnight capacity

photo by: Elvyn Jones

Renee Kuhl, the executive director of the Lawrence Community Shelter, speaks at a community conversation on homelessness Saturday, Nov. 16, 2019, at the Lawrence Public Library.

The Lawrence Community Shelter has successfully raised $75,000 this month, which has allowed the shelter for the time being to increase its diminished overnight capacity by about 25 people.

The fundraising success was highlighted Saturday afternoon at a community conversation on homelessness that was hosted at the Lawrence Public Library. Renee Kuhl, executive director of the Lawrence Community Shelter, told the crowd of about 90 people that the fundraising drive had been successful and that the shelter had immediately begun using the money to increase its capacity.

The Journal-World has reported the shelter earlier this year cut its overnight capacity from 125 people to 65 people. Leaders had said the shelter couldn’t afford to fund the staffing levels to safely operate at full capacity. But in early November, an anonymous donor provided $20,000 in matching funds. Since that time, the shelter has raised another $55,000. Overnight capacity at the shelter now is at 90 beds, several speakers at Saturday’s event said.

Facebook posts by the shelter in recent days also have touted the greater number of beds that are now available.

The increased capacity, though, isn’t enough to serve everyone who is homeless, the crowd was told. A homeless census taken in January estimated there were 90 people homeless at that time, but Nickie Daneke, director of housing assistance for the Lawrence-Douglas County Housing Authority, said the true number was probably greater than that snapshot count.

In remarks to the gathering, Patrick Quinn said there were many Lawrence individuals and families one paycheck away from being homeless. Quinn was one of four speakers at the event who escaped homelessness through their own efforts and the help of community organizations.

Quinn and the other presenters decried the stereotyping of the homeless. Every homeless person or family has a unique story, Quinn said.

His road to homelessness started when he was laid off from his position as director of social media with the Kansas Department of Transportation after the election in 2010 of Gov. Sam Brownback. He watched his bank account disappear as he unsuccessfully tried to restart a freelance writing career.

“You can see it coming,” he said. “That’s one of the horrors of this process. You can just see the numbers in your bank account shrinking every single day, and you don’t have an option to restore that.”

Once he could no longer afford his own place, Quinn, a Navy veteran, couch-surfed until he ran out of friends willing to lodge him, he said. At that time, he lived at the Lawrence Community Shelter for 16 months before his case was transferred to the Veterans Administration in Topeka. He praised the VA for helping him and encouraged other homeless veterans to seek its help.

After his departure, the Lawrence Community Shelter staff offered him a position as a direct service advocate. He continues in the job, which he said involves taking care of the needs of the shelter’s tenants.

He is grateful for the position because jobs can be difficult for the homeless to find because of stereotypes employers often harbor, Quinn said.

“When you become homeless in America, it completely erases your past,” he said. “Nobody cares what you are good at or what you’re not good at. Nobody cares if you have exploitable skills. You’re just a homeless person.”

Speaker Ashley Lindsey said she also had to overcome stereotyping and regularly deals with patronizing comments from others who know nothing of her past.

“Do you like unsolicited advice?” she asked. “Neither do the homeless.”

Lindsey got help from Lawrence Family Promise, a faith-based organization that provides shelter for up to 120 days for the homeless in member churches. She subsequently received a Section 8 rental assistance voucher that provided her and her children a home just as the temporary Family Promise housing was about to expire.

Stereotypes make it harder for the homeless to find employment or a rental home, said Dana Ortiz, executive director of Family Promise. Community members can help improve the situation by hiring the homeless and making rental units eligible for Section 8 housing, she said.

Ortiz also encouraged community members to volunteer at the community shelter, Family Promise, Catholic Charities, the Willow Domestic Violence Center or other nonprofits providing aid to the homeless. Volunteerism allows the agencies to provide additional days of shelter and more meals, she said.

“Get engaged,” she said. “Share a meal. A lot of good things can happen over a taco salad.”

Saturday’s community conversation came five days after members of the faith-based advocacy group Justice Matters voted to make homelessness one of three community issues on which it will focus. Justice Matters co-President Aileen Ball said homelessness will join alternatives to incarceration and restorative justice in schools as community focus issues. Mental health was dropped from the list of projects the group is actively campaigning for. The group now will move into a monitoring phase to ensure the county implements its approved plan for new mental health care programs.

With the Nov. 11 decision, Justice Matters will start small-group meetings next month to discuss causes of chronic homelessness in the community before it starts advocating solutions, Ball said.

“That is a process that has worked well for us,” she said.

The organization has played an active role in building political support for several other social justice issues in the community. The group ran campaigns for additional mental health care initiatives in the community and a sales tax for affordable housing projects.


Editor’s note: This story has been changed after publication to remove an inaccurate characterization of a speaker’s situation.

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