Lawrence city manager: Pallet shelter village slated for June, plus more updates on homelessness and housing crisis

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The Lawrence city manager shared updates Tuesday about a Pallet shelter village for people experiencing homelessness, possible merger with the Lawrence Community Shelter and more regarding the local affordable housing crisis. 

Craig Owens told city commissioners during his report at the end of their Tuesday meeting that the city has struggled to attract and retain employees who are trained to work with the homeless population.

The city was trying to provide services to people experiencing homelessness in the community, he said, but it struggled to find staffing. 

“We’ve tried to hire employees that are trained in that, hire employees that have knowledge in this space,” he said. “… And we haven’t been successful at always hiring and keeping people. We’re going to continue to do that. We’re offering up salaries to try and attract them.” 

Owens said the city was starting to receive a good pool of applicants for two job openings to work with unhoused people. He said housing was the solution, but in the interim, the city needed to do better to serve people experiencing homelessness.

Pallet shelter village

One of the city’s short-term solutions to homelessness and the housing crisis is building up to 75 modular units through its Pallet shelter village project. That project and other updates were included in a memo to the commission as part of the city manager’s report. 

“The goal is to rapidly build emergency shelter capacity to meet the needs of our community on any given night,” according to the memo. 

The modular homes, which will include a heating and cooling source but no bathrooms, will be part of a “village setting” that includes restrooms, laundry, shower and community gathering facilities and support service offices. The individual units include locking doors and windows, smoke detectors and carbon monoxide detectors for safety. 

The shelter village will not be operational until June in a site that city staff members have not yet identified, according to the memo. City staff will bring the commission a contract with Pallet soon. 

The support camp behind Johnny’s Tavern in North Lawrence is slated to close two and a half months earlier, on March 12. The city has not responded to email inquiries regarding whether or not it will follow through with its original date of closure. 

The city envisions the Pallet shelter village being in use for three to five years “while other more permanent housing solutions, like affordable rental and homeownership, are developed,” according to the memo. “Pallet homes are needed now, but the City does not plan to use them forever.”

Funding questions

In December, the commission approved using $4.5 million of American Rescue Plan Act money — federal COVID-19 relief funds — to purchase the modular homes for people experiencing homelessness. 

It is unclear how the city will sustain services for the Pallet shelter project after the pandemic relief dollars run out. 

“It is important to note that by assuming this challenge the city is assuming new operations and new costs that have not been built into long term financial plans,” according to the memo. “This will be the subject of continued evaluation and will be presented formally in the budget process.”

Community members during public comment raised concerns about that problem. 

Nancy Snow, a KU professor and support camp volunteer, said her understanding was that a large portion of the funding provided for homelessness solutions in Lawrence comes from grants that will expire.

“Homelessness will not go away when those grants end,” Snow said. “It will be with the city. How do you plan to deal with it?” 

Jenn Wolsey, the city’s former homeless programs coordinator, asked how the services are going to be sustained. 

“Think about that, because that’s what happened with (the Lawrence Community Shelter), is they did not have the proper funding to be able to sustain the level of services,” Wolsey said. “So I love the Pallet project. How are you going to sustain it when these grants run out? Think about that.” 

Potential merger with the Lawrence Community Shelter 

Owens said city staff hoped to utilize the Lawrence Community Shelter in a potential partnership moving forward.

“We have recently begun discussions to build a much stronger connection between our organizations and to formally explore options to leverage the assets and capacity of each organization to the greatest extent,” the memo stated. “Over the next six months, leadership and staff from the two organizations will work to analyze and develop a plan to expand and improve services to more people at the center of the mission for both of us.”

During Tuesday’s meeting, Owens said that “What they (the shelter) bring to the table is the expertise that we don’t have. What we bring to the table is the institutional stability and the funding.” 

Owens said he believed that by working together, the city and Lawrence Community Shelter could serve people better and faster. 

“So we are going to build our own staffing. We do have that desire,” he said. “But we’re also going to try and bring in their expertise and knowledge to help not only their operation be as successful as it can be, but also help us be successful in these other spaces throughout the community where people are unhoused and need emergency shelter.”

More affordable housing

The ultimate solution to homelessness is housing, Owens’ memo noted.

“The City is also working with developers and homebuilders as well as the Chamber of Commerce to build more market rate housing,” the memo states. “All of these areas are also supported by a variety of community partners who have been doing this work for many years. The City and County have recently added additional resources to these spaces to address the growing need within our community.”

The commission has also approved the allotment of about $3.52 million in additional ARPA funds and Affordable Housing Trust Fund money to several housing projects, listed out in the memo

Commissioner Amber Sellers asked whether the city had had any luck finding funding sources to help build permanent supportive housing. Nothing has panned out yet, said Danelle Walters, homeless initiatives manager. 

During the commission’s next meeting, set for Tuesday, Feb. 14, city staff members will bring back a discussion on including immigration status as a protected class for housing in a proposed city ordinance change. 

Proposed ordinance changes would create a protected class based on source of income, so landlords could not discriminatorily deny housing just because a prospective tenant’s rent payment would come from assistance such as vouchers. Read more about that in the articles at this link

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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.

Mackenzie Clark (she/her), reporter/founder of The Lawrence Times, can be reached at mclark (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Read more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.

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