City, Lawrence Community Shelter board plan massive expansion of shelter’s capacity, closure of North Lawrence camp

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The new Lawrence Community Shelter board has tentatively agreed to vastly expand the shelter’s capacity for the winter, and the city is looking to close the North Lawrence campsite once there is a place for people to go.

The city has been planning not to open a winter emergency shelter downtown this year. Instead, city staff members are looking to the Lawrence Community Shelter to provide that space in several ways. Misty Bosch-Hastings, homeless programs coordinator for the city, outlined the needs and plan during a meeting of the shelter’s board of directors Wednesday evening.

As of Wednesday, there were 50 people staying at the city-sanctioned camp in North Lawrence behind Johnny’s Tavern, Bosch-Hastings said. The city is guesstimating that there are 350 to 400 people living unsheltered in town right now; last year, the city pegged that number at a little fewer than 100.

Before the cold weather hit, LCS was averaging about 60 to 65 people staying at the building at 3655 E. 25th St. every night, Interim Executive Director Melanie Valdez said. They have up to 100 beds but do not offer day services, so the majority of guests can only stay from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m.

August Rudisell/Lawrence Times Lawrence Community Shelter

Pallet Shelter Village will soon provide 50 additional emergency shelter beds. The city has struggled to find an operator for the site, which will be at the former Veritas Christian School location, 256 N. Michigan St. Its timeline to open has repeatedly been bumped later into the year. Bosch-Hastings said Wednesday that the shelters will be built during the last week of November.

Each cabin-style unit in the Pallet Shelter Village will include a heating and cooling source, locking doors and windows, smoke detector and carbon monoxide detector. The shelters are not made of wooden pallets, as the name might imply, but rather take their name from the company that manufactures them. The units are part of a village setting that includes restrooms, laundry and shower facilities. Part of the goal of the project is for people who are experiencing homelessness to have safety, privacy and dignity to help them transition into permanent housing.

Pallet shelters (via City of Lawrence Facebook)

Bosch-Hastings said “there is interest” in operating the site, “but I still like — I would ask the board here to consider operating that — being who operates emergency shelter, I would ask to have that considered just because I feel like this is something that we need to work really well, and we need it done by somebody who has experience. The other nonprofit that’s considering does not have experience in this arena.”

The city also has 25 Pallet shelters that will not be used at the North Michigan site, and it has an opportunity to get 20 to 25 additional ones for free from an agency in Kansas City. Those 45 to 50 shelters could go behind LCS, Bosch-Hastings said.

“What makes the most sense to me was to put them where the resources are going to be, and that’s behind the shelter,” she said.

She said there were also some units in Monarch Village, a group of 12 tiny homes already behind the shelter, that “just need a little bit of work.” She said the city could get those up and running pretty quickly and have space for six small family units.

In addition, she said the shelter’s warehouse has space. She did not know exactly how many beds could fit — maybe 60 to 100 — but it has heat, a sprinkler system and bathrooms, and the shelter could apply for a special use permit to make that happen. Special use permits, or SUPs, can take a while to secure, however, and Bosch-Hastings said that would need to happen quickly.

Bosch-Hastings said single women and families with children are a top priority for emergency shelter services. None of the systems or local nonprofits in town offer emergency shelter for children or families, but there are 17 households with children on the city’s by-name list, and many of them are unsheltered, she said.

Bosch-Hastings said if there is a safe and secure way to house families in the shelter’s main building, that would be an option. She suggested that people who have previous criminal convictions and can’t be around children could be moved into Pallet shelters outside.

Regarding the city-sanctioned campsite, which opened in October 2022, Bosch-Hastings said “I’d see that campsite closing.” That’s contingent upon Pallet Shelter Village opening “and then having somewhere else for those individuals to go,” she said.

August Rudisell/Lawrence Times Misty Bosch-Hastings, homeless programs coordinator for the city, listens during the Lawrence Community Shelter board meeting, Nov. 1, 2023.

Altogether, based on the high estimates, there could be space for up to 270 people on the shelter campus, board President Charlie Bryan calculated.

Bosch-Hastings said the city will not allow people who have convictions for violent or sexual offenses to live at Pallet in the North Michigan Street neighborhood.

Staffing and challenges

The shelter has been operating at a lower capacity since before the COVID-19 pandemic hit for numerous reasons, which shelter administrators detailed in an interview last 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 at the time. “So we do have to set a limit just like any agency.” 

Bosch-Hastings said the city has some great staff at the North Lawrence camp who she believed would be beneficial to LCS.

“It’s interesting because their staff meeting today, discussing operations and asking staff how they felt operating at this higher capacity, and overall people have been very positive,” Valdez said. “They made a list of things that they would like to see you help support in this situation, and one of the things they did, they actually said to welcome those people to our team to work together. So they were looking forward to that.”

Valdez asked if the city was considering allowing a shelter staff member to join street outreach to start meeting people and making connections.

“We have advocated to be a part of, not necessarily be the sole provider, but to be able to have our faces in the community and build those relationships and urge people to come to shelter and access services,” Valdez said.

Bosch-Hastings said she wouldn’t want the whole LCS team out there right now, “but definitely a team member.”

Board member Elizabeth Keever said she thinks it’s incredibly important for shelter staff members to build trust and relationships with people living outside.

“And it’s a lot easier if you do build the trust and you can say, ‘Hey, I’ve got a place you can go right now,” Bosch-Hastings said.

August Rudisell/Lawrence Times Members of the Lawrence Community Shelter Board of Directors meet on Nov. 1, 2023. Facing toward the camera at left is board member Chuck Magerl; at right is Melanie Valdez, interim executive director of the shelter.

Valdez voiced some concerns during the meeting as well.

“We’re in a situation that’s tough for us because we have people’s lives in our hands, no matter what we do,” Valdez said. “We reduce services, that can cause loss of life. If we take too many people on, that also can have risk associated with it.”

Board member Chuck Magerl asked about job applications and whether Valdez felt confident that the shelter would be able to ramp up staffing. Valdez said they would have to discuss that because it’s been difficult to offer competitive wages — the shelter could be in the red by the end of December, she told board members last week — and retention has been an issue. She said she thinks focusing on training and staff development, “because we have not had the capacity to really shape people and grow them and develop them in a way to be successful.”

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Valdez said she worries that if LCS is the sole provider in this space, another COVID-19 outbreak could leave them without enough staff to support the people staying there.

“I know for us to be comfortable, we talked about this a lot and really would want some type of plan being in place, and not trying to figure out what we do when it happens,” Valdez said.

Bryan, who works for Lawrence-Douglas County Public Health, said he truly appreciated the concern for that. He said pandemics come and go and come again, and that Douglas County Emergency Management and the health department are always working on planning for all kinds of emergencies that could arise, but it’s also on the LCS board to make sure the shelter can manage through whatever crises come up.

“We probably should be prepared for that possibility of sanctioned campsites as a way to manage if there’s another significant biological event,” Bryan said. “It’s not our highest priority, I would say, at this point, but it’s a reasonable way to respond to public health emergency.”

Board Secretary Christina Gentry asked how LCS provides support for transgender guests. Valdez responded that “We just respect the gender that they identify as and let them be in the space where they’re most comfortable, and if their comfort level changes for whatever reason, we accommodate that as well.”

Keever said she thinks that’s a huge benefit of adding 45 Pallet shelters behind LCS, to provide individualized space for some people.

Board Vice President Shannon Oury asked to clarify whether the shelter was being asked to provide day center services.

“You’re being asked to find spaces for partners to provide those services,” Bosch-Hastings said.

“But that’s like the medical and mental health, the specialized services,” Valdez said. “But we would still be doing some form of case management because we’re doing data entry and assessments, the HMIS (Homeless Management Information System) stuff.”

“Yeah, but I think a lot of that could be handed over to Bert Nash (Community Mental Health Center), as far as getting IDs, housing, those types of things,” Bosch-Hastings said.

The meeting was a study session, so board members did not need to approve a motion to work with the city.

The board on Wednesday also went into a closed-door executive session for a little less than an hour before taking a unanimous vote to launch a national search for a new permanent director for the shelter. Read more about that in this article.

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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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