With the Winter Emergency Shelter closing after Sunday night, the Lawrence Community Shelter is increasing its nighttime capacity on Monday to 125 people — more than double the population it’s served since 2020.
LCS reduced its capacity to 55 to 60 people in 2019. It has remained at a reduced capacity due to the pandemic, staff shortages and a higher-needs population for the last couple of years.
However, the shelter is reducing its capacity during the day. Formerly, LCS would allow all 55 to 60 people to stay at the shelter 24/7. Now only 22 to 24 people will stay during waking hours.
“We put a lot of thought into who would stay 24/7 and we highly prioritized people that are very physically vulnerable due to age or disability,” said Melanie Valdez, interim executive director of LCS. “There are just some people that we have that if we put them out, that they are not capable of finding resources, so we prioritize them.”
Wage raises for direct support workers, a restructured floor plan, reallocation of staff and funding, and enhanced privacy features have enabled LCS to increase the people it will serve nightly, Valdez said.
The 22 to 24 people who will be allowed to stay during the day will sleep in a different area, to help shelter occupants differentiate between expectations, Valdez said. And to reduce conflict between people staying at night LCS integrated partitions between the fronts and sides of beds, with help from city workers.
“One thing that has really helped us is we did have a wage increase in our starting wages for our direct support staff,” Valdez said. “Retention has been much better, and we’ve been able to be better staffed with those frontline workers, which has been really helpful for some of that stability.”
LCS has not had an increase in funding, Valdez said, but she has reallocated funds, and shifted existing staff to work more at night — when LCS will have more people on-site.
Collaboration with the city
From installing beds to clearing the landscape, donating resources such as sleepwear and towels, and helping place partitions between beds, the city has supported LCS in fundamental ways so that it could increase nighttime capacity, Valdez said.
“I can say 100% … literally everything I have asked, (the city has) done it and done it quickly,” Valdez said. “Most of our warehouse lights were burned out. And it’s because they’re so high up, and for us to pay someone to come in and replace all our lights, that’s big for us. But they have access to all those things. They came in and put lights in and we’ve never seen our warehouse so brightly lit. It looked like a dungeon.”
City workers cleared the brush around the shelter, so staff would have a good line of sight of the property to see what’s happening at all times.
City workers also helped LCS come up with a creative solution to enhance privacy: hanging shower curtains, because they’re easily washable, between beds.
“I really felt like with that many people coming in and out that there were certain conditions that we needed to keep people safe and to offer some dignity and compassion,” Valdez said. “And one of (those things) was creating some sense of privacy, because if we have that many beds that close together … you just don’t want people feeling like they’re right on top of each other. We placed (curtains) in a way that pretty much no one can really see the person next to them if they close the curtain.”
Valdez isn’t sure if the changes will be permanent, or only until other shelter options become available. And she is waiting to see how many people will utilize the shelter once it’s operating at an increased nighttime capacity to see how to handle daytime access.
LCS could gradually increase the number of people who can stay during the day.
“I think it’s going to be a learning curve for us to figure out, you know, how many people actually do come, for one, as we’re not sure how many people will choose to come out to the shelter,” Valdez said. “We want to do everything we can and if we can find ways to meet this need right now, knowing that it’s a need, we will and with support from the community, from the city, whoever can offer it. We will do our best, always.”
For those seeking shelter, guests are served on a first-come, first-served basis as beds are available, according to LCS’s website. Prospective guests or their advocates may call 785-832-8864 to find out if there is space available at the shelter, 3655 E. 25th St.
Those who are interested in donating or volunteering can find information about how to do so at this link.
Note: This post has been corrected from a previous version.
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Chansi Long (she/her), Lawrence life reporter, can be reached at clong (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Read more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.