Lawrence Community Shelter raising money to house homeless quickly amid coronavirus outbreak

photo by: Jackson Barton

The Lawrence Community Shelter is pictured Friday Aug. 9, 2019.

Story updated at 4:08 p.m. Thursday:

The local homeless shelter’s closely spaced bunk beds present a vulnerable setup during an outbreak of a highly contagious virus, and shelter leaders fully recognize that.

The Lawrence Community Shelter is currently housing about 75 people in two dorms, one for men and one for women, filled with rows of bunk beds, and a family area with separated sleeping space but shared bathrooms. The shelter’s executive director, Renee Kuhl, said that because of the COVID-19 pandemic the shelter has started a new fundraising campaign to get as many of its guests into permanent housing as quickly as possible.

“In a congregate setting it is hard to provide any isolation or quarantine,” Kuhl said. “So we want as many people to get housed as we can. Even if we can’t get everyone out, we will have more room to spread people out and follow the 6-feet (social distancing).”

Public health officials have issued a stay-at-home order that closes nonessential businesses, and previous orders prohibited public gatherings of more than 10 people and called for people to maintain a 6-foot distance from one another. Homeless shelters and other social service agencies that provide necessities to the economically disadvantaged were identified as essential businesses that can stay open under the order.

Kuhl said the shelter’s goal is to raise $10,000 to help with rental assistance and medical care for shelter guests. She said most of the people the shelter is seeking housing for have some income already, and the hope is to provide them with enough money for a security deposit and anywhere from one to three months rent. She said the shelter was able to house 10 people last week, and the hope is that the $10,000 can help house another 30 people.

The shelter has also been taking other precautions to prevent the spread of the virus. Kuhl said the shelter has been following guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, including frequent hand-washing and sanitation of surfaces. She said shelter staff is wiping down surfaces multiple times per shift with a bleach solution, thanks in part to a recent supply drive to collect cleaning supplies for the shelter. In addition, she said the shelter is not currently accepting new guests, and guests can’t come and go freely as before.

The shelter’s campaign to find permanent housing for the maximum amount of people amid the outbreak is part of a concerted effort among the city’s local shelters and other organizations that support homeless people. Kuhl said she and the leaders of Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center and The Willow Domestic Violence Center have been communicating on a daily basis to work in concert with one another.

Those in charge of homeless outreach at Bert Nash have been working to reach homeless people who are unsheltered, and Bert Nash has received $50,000 in state funds to assist with housing unsheltered individuals and families in an effort to contain the coronavirus, as the Journal-World reported this week. Leaders at Bert Nash and The Willow are seeking landlords who will rent their empty units to the unsheltered homeless or populations living in tightly quartered shelters.

As of the state’s latest update Thursday, 13 Douglas County residents had tested positive for COVID-19 — 11 cases related to travel, one case that officials believe was contracted locally and one case whose mode of transmission hasn’t been determined — but a lack of tests nationwide has caused many experts to warn that the actual number of cases is likely far greater.

So far, Kuhl said no shelter guests have tested positive for the virus. However, she said that, in addition to letting guests spread out in the shelter’s currently close sleeping quarters, finding permanent homes for some of the guests will give the shelter more room to isolate and quarantine guests should someone get sick.

Those interested in donating to the shelter’s fundraising campaign can text STAYHEALTHY to 44-321 or donate online using a link on the shelter’s website, As of Thursday, the campaign had already raised about $5,000. Kuhl said the shelter is also still seeking additional cleaning supplies, such as bleach and hand sanitizer.

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