County says homeless project near community shelter would be too ‘out of sight, out of mind,’ lists other reasons for opposing use of county-owned land
photo by: Douglas County GIS
County officials oppose putting a new homeless project on county-owned land by the Lawrence Community Shelter, in part, because the site isn’t visible enough in the community and is too near the Douglas County Jail.
A county spokeswoman on Wednesday said those were two of four strong reservations that the county expressed to city officials when they asked about putting a project that would provide 75 tiny shelters for people experiencing homelessness on county-owned property directly behind the Lawrence Community Shelter, which provides homeless services currently.
“Being displaced to the edge of town may feel dehumanizing and it also makes the problem ‘out of sight, out of mind,’ which isn’t helpful in building community support for additional resources to solve a community-wide issue,” spokeswoman Karrey Britt said via email.
The county also said that “placing a new shelter for unhoused residents next to a jail is not trauma-informed for camp residents.”
Other objections that the county raised about using the county-owned site for the shelter village project included:
• Concern that placing the project next to the existing shelter would go against what the county says is a best practice in the shelter industry coordinating “smaller, scattered sites organized to meet different needs.”
• A belief that the new shelter village project should go through the city’s normal planning process. “County staff would want any project to go through the normal planning process to take feedback from nearby neighborhoods and residents,” Britt said via email. “Any site in Lawrence will be part of a neighborhood.”
It wasn’t immediately clear whether the county believes the city was looking to short-circuit the normal planning process by using county-owned land to house the new project. The Journal-World has asked the county for clarification on that point, and specifically whether the city indicated that it was planning on bypassing parts of its normal planning and development approval process. Britt, the county spokeswoman, declined to elaborate and referred any questions to the city.
Traditionally, projects that occur on either city or county-owned land are required to go through the same planning and development approval process — such as hearings at the Planning Commission — that is required for private developments.
The Journal-World also asked follow-up questions about how the county’s concerns about homeless projects being located next to a jail and being located on the edge of town impact the county’s thinking regarding the current Lawrence Community Shelter. Britt declined to answer those questions in a follow-up email.
Since 2012, the Lawrence Community Shelter has been located at 3701 Franklin Park Circle, which is both next to the jail and on the far eastern edge of the city.
When the homeless shelter moved to the location more than 20 years ago, it did so knowing that it would be located next to the jail, and it received major assistance from Douglas County to make the move.
As the Journal-World reported in 2011, the county was largely responsible for clearing the path for the shelter to relocate from downtown to the far eastern Lawrence site.
The county purchased 34 acres of ground just east of the Douglas County Jail to house what is now the county’s Public Works Facility. That land purchase was key to the shelter’s future because it made the county the largest landowner in the area. The shelter previously had tried to locate at 3701 Franklin Park Circle, but other landowners in the area ruled that protective covenants that had been placed on the property would not allow for a homeless shelter. But when the county became the largest landowner, it gained control of the board, and the covenant issue ultimately was resolved.
However, county leadership has changed since 2011, when Craig Weinaug served as the county administrator and brokered the deal. The current county administrator is Weinaug’s former assistant county administrator, Sarah Plinsky.
Plus, it also is worth noting that other aspects of the Lawrence Community Shelter have changed since it opened in 2012. The biggest change has been its capacity. When community leaders — including officials with the city and county — conducted fundraising to relocate the shelter from downtown in 2011 and 2012, a major rallying cry was that the downtown shelter was too small.
The downtown shelter had a capacity of 75 people, and community leaders frequently talked about the need for the shelter to have a capacity closer to 125 residents. Today, however, the Lawrence Community Shelter routinely caps its capacity at fewer than 75 people. The shelter has said it has capped capacity, in part, because of staffing concerns, but also because of a changing philosophy that questions whether larger group shelters are appropriate.