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Lawrence City Commission approves overnight winter emergency shelter in two community buildings

With temperatures dropping, Lawrence city commissioners on Tuesday approved a necessary step to help provide winter emergency shelter for those in need.

Commissioners approved a resolution temporarily suspending parts of city code to allow overnight emergency shelter in the Lawrence Community Building and the East Lawrence Recreation Center. Both facilities will be used as winter emergency shelter sites, with the Community Building serving as the main site and the Rec Center providing overflow space.  

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The two facilities will have room for about 75 people each. They will be open from 8 p.m. to 7 a.m. on any nights with temperatures forecast to be 35° or lower. Funding for the shelter program will come from budget savings from the Parks and Recreation department. 

Commissioners unanimously approved the resolution following brief discussion about the safety of turning gymnasiums into congregate shelter settings. Mayor Brad Finkeldei said although the city’s goal is ultimately to house those experiencing homelessness using state and federal financial support, the resolution is the city’s best option to address the need in the community this winter. The COVID-19 pandemic has reduced options for emergency shelter, he said.

“This is an issue that does not have an easy solution,” Finkeldei said. “I think when we are comparing having people sleep on the street and looking for a different option, I think this is a good option. I appreciate the efforts that got us to this point, and the effort it’s going to take to keep everybody safe from the cold and from other situations going forward.”

Assistant City Manager Brandon McGuire said the two sites would have paid site coordinators, and volunteers are being recruited to help. McGuire said the city also is looking to other community partners, such as Family Promise of Lawrence and the Lawrence Community Shelter, to provide additional capacity.  

“We are in the season where temperatures are now at a point where we find it necessary to go ahead and open up and start providing an emergency sheltering option for those who need it,” he said.  

The program will go into effect immediately and continue through March 31. The Community Building opened for shelter at 40% capacity last night, McGuire said, and some city employees who assisted with winter emergency sheltering last year already have begun helping. 

“They do have some experience working in this capacity, and they’re really stepping up to do this out of the good of their own heart and meet this urgent need in the community,” he said.

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