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Pinkney residents, preschool leaders concerned about plans for homeless shelter site

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Residents of Lawrence’s Pinkney neighborhood and staff at a nearby preschool are questioning the site where the city plans to place a “village” for people experiencing homelessness, and how the project would be managed.

The city has its sights set on the former location of Veritas Christian School, 256 N. Michigan St., for its Pallet Shelter Village. The land purchase and project, estimated at $1.84 million and to be paid from federal COVID-19 relief funds, is now on a timeline to provide temporary cabin-style sheltering for up to 75 people starting this July, pending Lawrence City Commission approval. 

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The tentative location would place the Pallet Shelter Village less than a mile walk from Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center and LMH Health, and about a mile from Heartland Community Health Center and its food pantry. 

But some people who live nearby the site said their most concerning fear is that the city won’t be able to manage the Pallet Shelter Village safely and effectively — though a city official said Saturday that the goal is to bring in experts to manage the site.

Margretta de Vries, board president for the Homeowners’ Association at Woodcreek Townhomes, said she plans to hold the city’s actions under close scrutiny. 

“There’s a big difference between just throwing up some tents like they did in North Lawrence without all of the amenities in place and staff that needed to be in place, because it seems like some of the problems that arose came from the lack of staffing and a bit of haphazard planning,” de Vries said. “Part of my intention to be very vocal about this is to make sure that does not happen here.”

The Children’s Learning Center, which serves infants through kindergarteners at 205 N. Michigan St., is about 1,000 feet from the tentative site of the Pallet Shelter Village. That’s concerning to Cecelia Courter, executive director of the CLC. 

Courter believes having a temporary shelter for unhoused people in such close proximity will spell the demise of the center, which has been open in Lawrence since 1969 and at its current location for 30 years.

It’s a tense time for the neighborhood, which could also be on the brink of losing its elementary school. The Lawrence school board will hold a hearing on Saturday, March 25, and decide the following Monday whether to close Pinckney Elementary as part of budget cuts. 

City staff members are asking Lawrence city commissioners to approve the purchase of the old Veritas property and a contract with Pallet, a Washington state-based “Public Benefit Corporation,” during their Tuesday, March 21 meeting

They’re also asking commissioners to approve a suspension of enforcement of zoning and code requirements at the site. This would hasten the process and allow the city to prepare the site on its previously announced timeline of June. Forcing the project to adhere to the zoning rules would require the city to make a rezoning request, which would take longer. 

August Rudisell/Lawrence Times The site of the former Veritas Christian School, 256 N. Michigan St., is pictured Saturday, March 18, 2023.

Kara Berger, who lives nearby the property, said she finds the city’s urgency concerning. She closely followed the city’s handling of the campsite in North Lawrence, which spurred owners of Johnny’s Tavern to temporarily close the restaurant in November, and she said she believes the city is not equipped to make the Pallet Shelter Village the success it needs to be. 

“This just seems like a bandaid, and based off the city’s track record, I have zero faith that how they are proposing it will be what will actually happen,” Berger said. 

Berger said she fears the city will botch the Pallet Shelter Village, which consequently could decrease property values and increase neighborhood crime. 

The urgency stems from the city’s desire to have structures up and operational before next winter, Vice Mayor Bart Littlejohn said during a Pinkney Neighborhood Association meeting on Saturday.

“We want to have opportunities and resources in place so that we can put people, especially during inclement weather, where they can be in that safe space,” Littlejohn said. “So that, unfortunately, is part of this process and in our timeline. We’ve got to really hit it so that, not only before July, but before the weather starts turning and those resources start to cinch up again.” 

Why this site?

Assistant City Manager Brandon McGuire answered some residents’ questions and heard concerns during the neighborhood association’s meeting Saturday morning. 

A neighbor said during the meeting that they had received notice that a business two blocks away from their home was going to add a garage to its building, and they’d have 30 days to protest — a stark contrast to how they learned about this plan, which was from reading about it in the news. 

“This is incredible. It seems like it’s a done deal, and all this talk about how it’s gonna be run is just window dressing,” the neighbor said. “It’s already apparently a done deal, with no consideration for the neighborhood.”

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Some asked McGuire how the city had selected this particular piece of land, and whether other locations — such as the plot of county-owned land next to the Lawrence Community Shelter, on the eastern edge of Lawrence — had been considered. 

“There’s not a day center there,” McGuire said of the Lawrence Community Shelter, which this week expanded its overnight capacity to 125 people but no longer allows most guests to stay during the days. 

“There’s no other social support services that are located right there. And so essentially, what we’d be doing is … taking people either just out of town, or right on the very edge of town and putting them kind of on an island,” McGuire said. “I’m not saying we couldn’t think about developing that and trying to bring agencies there on-site. But that’s not going to happen on the timeline that we’re hoping to accomplish this by.”

The map below shows the proposed Pallet Shelter Village site, along with some nearby points of interest. Zoom out to see the Lawrence Community Shelter location on the east side of town.

The city’s main concern now is nailing down a location so it can put an order in through Pallet, McGuire said. If the Lawrence City Commission approves the land acquisition and zoning enforcement suspension on Tuesday, the city will “get in line” for Pallet structures, McGuire said. 

“Pallet has told us that at this point, they would not be able to deliver these cabins until sometime in July, and then we know that we still have to get an operator under contract,” McGuire said. “And that’s really where a lot of the details, I think, of the concerns of the neighbors will be worked out.” 

The village will include individual cabins that have safety features such as heating, cooling, carbon monoxide and smoke detectors, and locking doors. There will be restrooms, laundry and shower facilities, including some trailers the city already owns from a previous temporary camp at Woody Park. The site will also include office space for providers of supportive services. 

The plan is to demolish the structures on the Veritas property, McGuire said. That will come at an expense above and beyond the $725,000 the Lawrence City Commission will consider for the purchase of the property, and the $1.114 million contract with Pallet.

The property might not fit all 75 units, so the city might look at other locations for a second Pallet site. The land the city had been looking at was much larger, he said, but he did not go into details on why that deal fell through

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He estimated the village would be in use for about five years, and then hopefully the site could be used for permanent affordable or transitional housing.

“We’re committing to a future where homelessness is rare, very rare and extremely brief, and that’s what we’re really trying to accomplish,” McGuire said, citing the city and county’s commitment to the Built for Zero movement. “So our goal is not to just build shelters and run shelters, it’s to get people into housing because that’s the solution to homelessness.”

The city is going to issue a request for proposals (RFP) to hire a professional agency to manage the Pallet Shelter Village, McGuire said during the meeting. 

Assistant City Manager Brandon McGuire, bottom left, speaks during the Pinkney Neighborhood Association meeting on March 18, 2023. (Screenshot)

“As you all are probably aware, the City of Lawrence is still relatively new in terms of operating shelters, running sheltering operations,” he said. “And so something that we are planning on doing is issuing an RFP and soliciting proposals for agencies that do have experience operating sheltering programs, and we have been meeting with some of those agencies and hope that we’ll actually get some proposals from agencies that have been running specifically Pallet shelter villages.”

Another neighbor at the meeting said they had to “call bull” on the statement that the city is new to running this kind of site, citing the camp the city ran at nearby Woody Park early into the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“There were fights there. There were things that caused additional staff from the city as well as Bert Nash, etc., to have to come in and staff that location,” the neighbor said. “So guess what — you had a trial run in 2020. And it’s like you guys didn’t learn anything there. Now you’re having the same kinds of issues on a much broader scale in North Lawrence. And so how are we supposed to trust the city will be able to run this site in an effective and safe manner?”

Littlejohn responded that 30% of the people who were at the site were rehoused, and that staffing at the site helped. The neighbor asked why, then, those lessons weren’t applied from the beginning at the North Lawrence campsite.

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August Rudisell/Lawrence Times Members of the Pinkney Neighborhood Association meet on Saturday.

Children’s Learning Center concerns 

Meanwhile, the community engagement has yet to start at the Children’s Learning Center, said Courter, the executive director. She and CLC board members learned about the city’s plan to place the Pallet Shelter Village nearby from an article in The Lawrence Times. No one from the city has reached out to them, she said.

Cecelia Courter

She said her main concerns were a potential increase in property crime, visible drug use, and unpredictable conflict, as well as the social stigma that could come with having a children’s center adjacent to a homeless shelter. Not everyone living outside participates in illegal activities, but Lawrence Times reporters have witnessed some of these concerns at the North Lawrence campsite

“My biggest concern is the perceived safety risk that will detour parents from enrolling their children at CLC and current parents finding a different early learning center due to the location of the Pallet village,” Courter said. “Keeping high-quality teachers will also be difficult due to the nature of risk that will be located directly by the school. I believe that CLC’s long-standing success in the community will slowly decrease and ultimately (this) could close the school completely.”

Tara Moore, CLC program director, has two children who attend the learning center. However, she said if she was not an employee, she would likely dismiss the location as a spot to take her children when and if the Pallet Shelter Village comes to fruition up the street.

“That means that we’re going to have fewer enrollment calls for the school due to the fact that many parents aren’t going to want to send their child to a location like that,” Moore said. “Even if the standards of the people living at the Pallet homes are high standards and quality standards, there’s going to be a perceived concern for the safety of the children attending the school.” 

August Rudisell/Lawrence Times The Children’s Learning Center, 205 N. Michigan St., is pictured on Saturday. The preschool sits in the same block as the proposed site of the Pallet Shelter Village.

Having a shelter next to CLC will likely force the nonprofit to purchase a different location, close, or stay and serve only the children whose caregivers do not have the privilege of going elsewhere, Courter said. 

“(Residents of the village are) gonna have access to the hospital, to the health department, to Bert Nash, all within a mile,” Courter said. “But if you look at that map, that means that all of that traffic has to go right by the school.” 

CLC board members wrote a collective statement in response to the city’s announcement: “We have many questions about what this might mean for our early childhood center, which is located about 1,200 feet from the site, particularly given the aggressive timeline of having the location open in June, the departure from normal zoning processes and the lack of communication and collaboration with the neighborhood.” 

Lingering questions

Konnie Leffler, who has lived across the street from the proposed site for 35 years, criticized what she sees as the city’s lack of transparency and genuine engagement. Although Littlejohn and McGuire attended the neighborhood meeting, she said they seemed to dismiss most of her concerns and questions.

McGuire had said all of the concerns would be worked out after the city purchased the land, which Leffler said seemed wrong to her. 

“Yes, I asked about … concerns being worked out after the purchase again and got no reply,” Leffler said. “They try to turn the discussion to the people who will be living there and their needs — which makes anyone with questions about the site look like people who have no empathy or understanding — while ignoring the people who already live in the area.”

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Leffler said she left the meeting with many questions she didn’t feel were answered completely: “Why is this being rushed through without input from the community? Why was this site chosen? What costs are related to choosing this site over other possible sites?” 

“Either they don’t have any answers or they know we won’t react well to the answers,” she said. 

Courter, too, had questions about how the city will decide who can live at the site, whether there will be city employees and security on-site, and more.

“There is just not enough information for us to even realize, you know, 1,200 feet from the school, what kind of population is that going to bring in?” she said.

We sent an email to McGuire asking many of those questions. The response Friday, from interim city spokesperson Laura McCabe, said the Pallet Shelter Village was a large undertaking, but “we are supported by experts from Pallet and expect to engage the services of an agency with expertise operating such programs.”

The statement went on to say that “it’s far too early in the process to answer every detail with complete accuracy but feel free to follow up as things progress and final decisions are made. We have reached out to the neighborhood surrounding the area and will work to encourage input from them on details as well.”

De Vries, of the Woodcreek Townhomes HOA, is inviting neighbors and community members to a virtual meeting from 7 to 9 p.m. Monday, March 20, according to a Facebook event page. The link to join the meeting should be posted on the event page at this link around 5 p.m. Monday.

“This will be a listening session to share and compile our concerns in preparation for the City Commission meeting on Tuesday,” according to the event page. “Two city commissioners and city staff have also been invited to this meeting to hear what folks have to say.”

The Lawrence City Commission will meet at 5:45 p.m. Tuesday, March 21 at City Hall, 6 E. Sixth St. Read more and see the contracts the commissioners will consider at this link.

The commission accepts written public comment until noon the day of the meeting sent to ccagendas@lawrenceks.org. People may provide public comment during meetings in person at City Hall or via Zoom. Register for the Zoom meeting at this link.

View the full meeting agenda at this link. Meetings are livestreamed on the city’s YouTube channel.

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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.

— Reporter Mackenzie Clark contributed to this article.

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