Editorial: Now is the time for further review of our shelter strategy
photo by: Journal-World Photo Illustration
The board of the Lawrence Community Shelter should be applauded for taking the difficult but wise step of ordering an independent investigation of alleged actions related to its director, Renee Kuhl. Now, the board and community leaders should take the next important step by conducting an in-depth review of how the community can better help and stabilize the homeless shelter.
To ensure such a review is productive, it would be good to get on the same page about the current state of affairs at the shelter. Following last Sunday’s article in the Journal-World, some people felt the only issue that has come to light is that of a personnel matter.
It is not uncommon for managers and employees to differ on workplace rules, strategies, discipline and other such matters. In the Sunday article, there certainly were allegations by current and former employees related to such differences. That has led some to try to brush this off as a “he said, she said” sort of situation. If you want to take that line of thinking, you should at least be more accurate and call it a “they said, she said” situation. The Journal-World talked to 11 current and former employees of the shelter.
But indeed, everyone involved deserves the benefit of answers from an independent investigation. It appears the board has set the organization on a path to get those answers. Again, the board should be thanked for taking that action.
However, the focus on those personnel matters could overshadow other important issues. Those other issues are the primary reason the Journal-World pursued last Sunday’s article: to give a voice to vulnerable, front-line workers who are in a position to help our community better understand a vital organization.
So, what are these deeper issues? Here are a few:
• Approximately 30 people have quit, been fired or otherwise ended their employment at the shelter in 2020 and thus far in 2021. That is a high turnover rate by the shelter’s standards. None of this seems to be in dispute. None of this is “he said, she said.”
• The high turnover is creating operational problems at the shelter. As we’ve reported, the shelter had dramatically cut its daytime operating hours in May, due to staff training needs. This is not “he said, she said.”
• Kuhl is the fifth executive director at the homeless shelter since May 2014. It is not “he said, she said” to worry about how little consistency in leadership this important institution has had in recent years.
• In August 2019, well before the pandemic, LCS reduced its shelter capacity from about 125 people to 65. The reduction didn’t happen because need had suddenly diminished. The most recent count estimates that more than 200 people are unsheltered in Lawrence. There are small tent cities scattered throughout Lawrence. There are many, many people saddened, discouraged and frustrated to see this in our community.
Let’s have a community conversation about why the shelter reduced its capacity so much before the pandemic. Let’s have a conversation about how it plans to increase its capacity above the approximately 40-person level it is now operating with. Let’s have a conversation about why LCS is providing fewer shelter beds today than the LCS and The Salvation Army provided in 2009.
Those two organizations provided 70 beds in 2009, and when The Salvation Army decided to get out of the shelter business, the community felt like it was in a shelter crisis. The public responded with millions of dollars of donations and so much effort to find a site and building that would work for the shelter. That building, by the way, has several thousand square feet of undeveloped space. That space could be improved and LCS could provide far more than 125 beds.
There have been some suggestions this reduction in capacity is part of a larger “Housing First” strategy. If so, let’s have a discussion about that too. Maybe there are good arguments why people who would rather sleep in a shelter are sleeping in a tent while our partially publicly funded shelter operates below its capacity.
Maybe there really are good arguments on that front. But if so, they need to be made soon because too many people are losing confidence in an organization that is critical in making Lawrence a compassionate community.