The only way problems will be fixed is ‘if somebody sticks around,’ interim director says
Post updated at 12 p.m. Friday, Nov. 11:
As community members pressure the Lawrence Community Shelter to surge capacity from 50 to 125 people, team members at the shelter say they wish more people took the time to understand their decision-making process.
“It’s hard because when you see people saying these things or repeating misinformation or whatever it is, and they’ve never spoken to you, they’ve never been out here, they’ve never seen or ever asked us about our practices or why — it just doesn’t make sense to me,” said Melanie Valdez, interim executive director of LCS. “Sometimes we just see a lot of talk about LCS from people that have never even been out here, never spoken to us.”
Valdez and LCS leadership are planning an event designed to increase the public’s understanding of the housing crisis. People can peruse an interactive educational display from 1 to 4 p.m. Saturday (Nov. 12) at the Lawrence Public Library.
An investigation into the conduct of the last permanent executive director, Renee Kuhl, led to Kuhl leaving in June of 2021. Valdez, hired as the shelter’s director of finance and operations in September 2021, took over duties as the interim executive director at LCS in April.
Valdez and other leaders at LCS — most of whom have worked at the shelter less than two years — say they have inherited a reputation they did not create and policies they do not agree with. One such policy is that the shelter should serve 125 people at a time, and 140 during the cold-weather seasons.
“Those numbers are not reflective of the high needs (and) disabilities of the people we serve,” Valdez said. “Also we are constrained by our ability to staff at a rate to meet those needs.”
Local business owners created a petition in October that has garnered more than 700 signatures. It demands that the city make LCS increase its occupancy from 50 to 125. LCS currently serves about 50 individuals, and no families.
Valdez and other leaders at LCS said increasing that number to 125 would not be realistic or humane.
“Our people are more in line with those served in congregate facilities caring for people with mental health issues, drug addiction and are likely to be unable to evacuate completely independently if there is a fire,” Valdez said. “These types of facilities have occupancy determined at 80 square feet per person which would put us around a capacity of 55 to 56, which is very close to where we are currently running.”
Before the 2020 pandemic, and before a shift in leadership in 2019, LCS had operated at a capacity at least double what it does now.
Lacee Roe, director of community engagement, has worked at LCS for three years, longer than anyone on its current leadership team.
She remembers when LCS would shuffle as many people into the building as possible.
“We had little sleeping mats laid out across the concrete floors, maybe in the hallways. They’d be in the same room; they’d be in the cafeteria. There was a time when somebody was sleeping under a cafeteria table,” Roe said. “And this simply is not humane. It’s not responsible. It’s not sustainable.”
After longtime director Loring Henderson retired in 2014, at least eight people have served as either the director or the interim director of LCS.
At some point, LCS transitioned into a low-barrier shelter. Once upon a time, LCS required occupants to line up at a specific time to be checked for sobriety before entering. If someone was drinking or caused conflict, they might be removed from the premises or banned.
Now calling the police or forcing someone to leave is a last resort under the l0w-barrier model. And many people previously banned have been allowed to return.
The shift to low-barrier also softened eligibility requirements. People do not need to prove sobriety to access services.
“We don’t do criminal background checks,” said Melissa Botts, director of the shelter programs. “Now, with that obviously comes higher needs because you have people who are sober mixed with people who are active in their addiction. You have people who are survivors of DV (domestic violence) and then people with criminal background histories.”
LCS is not completely low-barrier, but is working toward it.
“To be fully low barrier, we still need to implement some more things like becoming pet-friendly and offering more space for individuals to adequately store their belongings,” Valdez said. “So these are two more barriers we are looking at removing.”
Many people seeking services at LCS also have severe and persistent mental illnesses, and require more attention and care from staff, Botts said.
Overcrowding can result in increased conflicts and poor mental health outcomes, according to research the LCS leadership team cited.
“It also prevents other clients from wanting services because they don’t want to be in an overcrowded space,” Botts said.
The decision to maintain a low-barrier model is an evidence-based practice, and adhering to it is a federal funding requirement.
When people are turned away from shelter and supportive services for violating rules, cities often absorb the costs by jailing or hospitalizing the houseless at a colossal expense, data shows. Now to be eligible for Housing and Urban Development (HUD) funding, shelters must use the housing-first, low-barrier model.
LCS receives about 23% of its annual funding from the City of Lawrence ($296,00) and Douglas County ($300,000), according to numbers Valdez provided. The majority of its $2.6 million budget comes from federal funding, which requires low-barrier models. The city has also provided about $290,000 in grants and COVID-19 relief funds this year.
“As a low-barrier shelter, we are expected to serve the people with the highest needs, the least likely to be able to be housed, the least likely to be able to resolve on their own without significant assistance,” Valdez said. “So we do have to set a limit just like any agency.”
In other words, just because 125 people can fit into the shelter, that’s not the number of people LCS staff could adequately and safely serve.
“A reduced capacity doesn’t mean we’re serving less people because we’re getting them into housing and that opens up a bed,” Botts said. “We can serve the same 125 people for three years, like we have in the past, but that’s actually serving less people and we’re not getting them into housing.”
An ‘inappropriate location for children’
The model of treatment at LCS has become more trauma-informed. In the past, people were crammed next to strangers, sleeping on the floor in rooms without doors, not knowing who might sleep nearby. Now there are three designated sleeping areas, and occupants have some say over where they sleep.
Reducing the capacity also reduces the unpredictability, Roe said.
“Nobody can ever heal from their trauma or move forward if they’re … stuck in a crowded shelter surrounded by a bunch of other people with their own trauma wounds,” Roe said.
LCS staff have about 90 days to help clients obtain housing so they don’t experience recurring homelessness. If a person stays longer than 90 days, they are considered “housed,” which complicates funding and represents a service failure.
Last year the average stay was 42 days. 114 people who stayed at the shelter in 2021 transitioned into housing.
Only 33 people have left LCS for permanent housing so far this year. Less funding for housing programs, the expiration of pandemic funding, and a scarcity of landlords willing to approve guests for a lease has impacted LCS’s ability to house.
LCS staff members try to use federal funds to move families into housing, or they refer them to other resources, such as Family Promise.
“We have decided, because of the demographic we’re serving, that this is an inappropriate location for children,” Valdez said.
The shelter’s location and its clients’ unpredictable behavior contributed to the staff’s decision to stop sheltering children.
LCS tried to shelter families with children in its Monarch Village — a string of 12 tiny houses positioned behind the shelter near a garden and butterfly waystation. Ultimately, staff deemed the space as unsuitable for kids.
“There are so many reasons why this property is not good for families, and not good for children,” Roe said. “First of all, the tiny house units get really small, really fast. And this also would not be a good property for kids to just be able to play outside, because we have people here with so many diverse trauma backgrounds, and we have issues that do come up here as a result of that.”
LCS staff are often criticized for overhauling the shelter’s system, and they’re often blamed for mistakes from the past, they said.
Hired as director of finance and operations six months ago so Valdez could transition fully to the interim executive director position, Ande Johnson hopes community members will give the team a chance to make a difference.
“I think that we’re in this really neat place — almost like rebirth,” he said. “No one here is tied to how things used to be because none of us were here. Give us a chance. We’ve only been here for a short period of time. Give us an opportunity to get our feet underneath us. And then you’re gonna see just how amazing this leadership team can be.”
Currently, the LCS staff members struggle to obtain community support and funding. They also struggle with the day-to-day act of assessing people’s severity of need and linking them to housing options.
Lawrence has a higher poverty rate than the national average, with almost 19% of Lawrencians living below poverty levels, according to Census data from 2020. With lower incomes and higher rents in Lawrence, the housing problem needs housing-based solutions, Valdez said.
In the meantime, the LCS leadership team will continue to go to work even when the job before them feels overwhelming.
“There are some days that some of us have walked out of here crying, because it’s hard,” Valdez said. “I know for me, there were days that I just wanted to quit, but I can’t, because it’s not right. What’s happening out here isn’t right. It needs to be fixed. And the only way that’s going to happen is if somebody sticks around.”
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Chansi Long (she/her) reported for The Lawrence Times from July 2022 through August 2023. Read more of her work for the Times here.