Family Promise files plans for homeless shelter to house children and their parents; group has been using churches

photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World

Lawrence's Family Promise has filed plans to convert a former child daycare center at 200 Mt. Hope Court into a shelter for homeless families. The site is pictured on Jan. 2, 2024.

After 15 years of housing homeless families in various churches one week at a time, a Lawrence nonprofit is working on a deal to open its own homeless shelter in a former children’s day care center.

Lawrence’s Family Promise organization has filed plans with City Hall to convert a longtime day care building at 200 Mount Hope Court into a facility that could house up to six homeless families at any given time.

“We were very excited when we saw that building was on the market,” Family Promise Executive Director Dana Ortiz said of the building that is about four blocks west of LMH Health and a couple of blocks east of the DoubleTree hotel.

The property already is equipped with bedrooms, multiple kitchens and a playground for kids. But more than anything, the property will mean a whole lot less uprooting of the families who are being provided shelter by Family Promise.

Since its inception 15 years ago, Family Promise has operated without a traditional shelter building. Instead, it worked with area churches or religious congregations to provide temporary shelter and meals for those families in need. Homeless families would sleep and eat in one particular church or house of worship for one particular week. The next week, those families would pack up their belongings and move to the next church on Family Promise’s schedule.

“The best benefit of this project is it won’t be as stressful for the families,” Ortiz said. “Kids just get used to one place, and then in a week, they are in another place.”

The project does need to win a pair of key approvals before it can move ahead. Both the Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission and the Lawrence City Commission are being asked to approve a special use permit for the project. The zoning on the property does allow for a homeless shelter use, but only if a special permit is granted.

Ortiz is confident the shelter will fit in well with the surrounding neighborhood. Family Promise has been operating in a variety of Lawrence neighborhoods for years, as many of the churches it uses are located in Lawrence neighborhoods.

Family Promise also has long operated a day center at 905 Tennessee St., which actually has more people in it than the shelter will. Family Promise currently is serving 72 families, but only four families currently are in the organization’s shelter program.

“The shelter program is actually our smallest program,” Ortiz said.

She said the largest programs focus on homelessness prevention or homeless diversion, where Family Promise works with the newly homeless to find shelter for them with a friend, relative or at another safe space that keeps them out of a group shelter setting.

The new shelter potentially could increase the organization’s shelter capacity on some weeks. Currently, the organization doesn’t host more than four families at any given church or place of worship. The new facility would allow up to six families on any given night. The new shelter, consistent with the organization’s mission, only will serve families with children who are experiencing homelessness. Ortiz said the actual number of families served likely will be less than the maximum of six, on many occasions. That’s because the rooms at the new shelter will accommodate up to four people. If a family has more than four members, it will occupy two rooms. The organization won’t put multiple families in a single room, thus there will be many weeks where the number of families will be less than the maximum six.

The little bit of extra capacity, though, will be helpful, Ortiz said. She said families — even with the pandemic in the rearview mirror — are facing a lot of longtime stressors that are leading to homelessness. For years, Ortiz said the top three reasons that families give for how they became homeless have remained unchanged: 1. Changes in financial situations, such as a loss of a job; 2. A breakup of a family, which often leads to financial problems as families move from dual income to one income; and 3. incidents of domestic violence.

“I think the pandemic brought an awful lot of those top three reasons to a heightened intensity, and unfortunately, they are not easing,” Ortiz said.

The extra capacity was not the primary reason Family Promise began looking for a shelter of its own last spring. Reducing the amount of trauma caused by the week-to-week moves was the top reason the nonprofit’s board made the strategic decision.

Difficulty in finding enough volunteers in local religious congregations was another reason the group began looking for a space of its own, Ortiz said. She said the pandemic created some serious issues with the organization’s sheltering model. For example, prior to the pandemic, it was common for members of a religious congregation to spend the night with a family inside the church building. It has been difficult to find enough volunteers to replicate that task post-pandemic.

“It is harder to get volunteers to do things like we did in 2019,” she said.

At the new shelter, Family Promise will be hiring staff members to work overnight shifts at the facility. But Ortiz stressed that Family Promise at its new facility very much will be counting on volunteers from local religious congregations. The plan is for local congregations to provide the evening meals for families, and also to organize and participate in some evening activities with the children and their parents.

“We want that engagement with the volunteers and the home-cooked meals and the relationships that happen gathered around a table,” Ortiz said.

She said there is something about the hospitality that is shown by volunteers that has a positive impact on the families. But she also said the act of gathering together for a meal or activity has produced big benefits in the volunteer community.

“One of the more beautiful things about this hospitality model is you go there as a volunteer, but you might get to know the families over a course of time,” Ortiz said. “Then it becomes a relationship because you better understand their struggles, better understand what their kids are going through and what they have to do to keep up in school.”

When volunteers get to that level of engagement, an important change takes place. Volunteers no longer are volunteering to simply combat the issue of homelessness.

“It is not about an issue at that point,” Ortiz said. “It becomes about people they know. That changes hearts.”

Ortiz said Family Promise hopes to win permit approval from the city by late February, with the first key hearing set for the Jan. 24 Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission meeting. If approvals go as planned, remodeling of the facility would begin in the spring, allowing the center to open by the fall of 2024.

Lawrence's Family Promise has filed plans to convert a former child daycare center at 200 Mt. Hope Court into a shelter for homeless families. The site is pictured on Jan. 2, 2024.


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