Post updated at 1:35 p.m. Friday, Dec. 2:
Just before 8 p.m. Thursday, about a dozen people stood outside the Winter Emergency Shelter, waiting for it to open.
It was chilly, but not so cold you could see your breath. People were bundled in coats, scarves, gloves, and winter hats. Some huddled together outside the Community Building, 115 W. 11th St. Others stood alone.
Among those waiting was Samuel Herrington, who said he has been homeless since 2016.
“It’s the best, safest place for homeless people,” Herrington said of the WES. “It’s monitored. There’s somebody watching over you.”
Born and raised in Lawrence, Herrington has struggled with homelessness ever since he injured his back working.
“My back is totally out of whack because of the hard labor jobs I did when I was a teenager and a young Black man,” Herrington said. “You know, it’s like, I can’t even (afford to) rent a room, let alone an apartment.”
Herrington carries two concealed knives to protect himself. Upon entry into WES, he had to temporarily hand his weapons over and sign a contract agreeing to obey the rules.
Herrington greeted the volunteers warmly, took the thin sleeping mat, pillow and blanket that a volunteer handed him and scanned the room. Eyeing a familiar face, he went to settle his mat on the gymnasium floor on the north side of the Community Building near his friend.
On the south side was a women’s sleeping area, with only two women in it.
In the stairwell, another woman who had started to come inside was cursing and throwing some of her belongings — a pack of cigarettes and a paper cup — down the stairs. She opened and slammed the door.
City staff discussed what to do about the situation.
“Is she drunk?” someone asked.
“She might be high,” said Cicely Thornton, homeless programs project specialist.
Waiting for the conflict to either escalate or resolve itself, Thornton surveyed the room. The other people who had entered were calm and settled, scattered throughout the gymnasium and lying on their mats.
The WES has the capacity to serve 75 people, and about 13 had checked in by 8:30 Thursday. Ultimately, about 25 checked in for the night, Thornton said Friday. But not everyone experiencing houselessness wants to stay there.
“It’s not properly set up,” said Tim Olson, who has been homeless nearly four years. “You can’t keep your stuff with you there.”
Some people experiencing homelessness have opted to stay at the city-run campsite in North Lawrence. One of their complaints is that the WES has no partitions between sleepers — that they are next to strangers without any separations at all.
Another reason people didn’t want to go to WES is that it is harder to keep sight of their stuff, which is placed into a 30-gallon tub and stored in a cargo container south of the community building.
On a recent afternoon, one woman staying at the support camp was anxious that the city would tear down the tents now that the WES was open.
“The scary thing is, I’m afraid the city is going to kick us out here and give us no notice,” she said. “I’ve already packed up all my stuff in my tent, ready to try and find some storage place to put it because I’ve accumulated belongings and when I do get into a place I would like to take them with me.”
The support site in North Lawrence offers private locks to protect belongings. Although the collective storage container at WES is locked, some said they didn’t have enough space or weren’t able to freely access their container during their stay.
A man who goes by Queen, who started staying at the North Lawrence site before the city directed more people to stay there, said he has no intention of going to the WES.
“I’m actually in the process of winterizing right now,” he said. “The first line of defense is the tarp.”
Another reason some people don’t stay at the WES is that they are required to wake up at 7 a.m. because the Community Building is open to the public by 8 a.m. But they do have access to showers and bathrooms, and while many people won’t sleep at the WES, they do go there during the day to access those amenities.
The city’s Housing Initiatives Division (HID) has calculated that there are nearly 200 people experiencing homelessness in Lawrence. The Lawrence Community Shelter currently only serves 50 people. The city-sanctioned camp served about 60, according to the most recent numbers supplied by the HID, and maybe a dozen of those people transitioned to the WES.
The city still needs volunteer coverage for the WES. Intake shifts have been easier to fill than overnight hours, Thornton said.
“I hope more people make their way over here,” Thornton said.
According to the city’s website, the North Lawrence support site will still be available during the months the WES is open. But camping with available shelter vacancies will technically be violating city ordinance.
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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.