Lawrence City Commission debates emergency sheltering options amid woman’s death, dangerous weather

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Amid the heavy snowfall and more severe weather in the forecast for Lawrence, city commissioners on Tuesday discussed but took no action to expand emergency sheltering options for people experiencing homelessness. 

The majority of commissioners agreed that the city’s plan with the Lawrence Community Shelter is sufficient, and they were not willing to ask city staff members to open an emergency shelter downtown or closer to downtown. 

The commission was set to receive an update on homelessness programs next week, but Commissioner Amber Sellers asked to move that discussion up considering the snow on the ground and the dangerous cold in the forecast later this week. Gov. Laura Kelly on Monday declared a state of emergency because of the winter storm. 

A 31-year-old woman and her dog were found dead Tuesday at Sandra J. Shaw Park in Lawrence. A meteorologist with the National Weather Service said the west and north sides of town saw between 5 and 8 inches of snow from the storm, and even colder temperatures are in the forecast later this week. More snow is also possible. 

Specifically, Sellers asked to add to Tuesday’s agenda a discussion on overflow plans for people to access indoor overnight shelter if the Lawrence Community Shelter hits capacity. It was an uncommon request, but other commissioners agreed to add the discussion to the meeting agenda. 

Commissioners heard dozens of comments from people — many of whom expressed grief for the woman who died — asking them to take further action, including reopening the downtown Community Building as an emergency overnight shelter. 

City staff members have said since March 2023 that there would be no emergency sheltering at the Community Building again this winter. The plan has been to increase capacity at LCS, plus the addition of the Pallet shelter village that is constructed but not yet staffed to open

LCS, on the eastern edge of town, is about 4.4 miles from the Community Building at 115 W. 11th St. 

Misty Bosch-Hastings, homeless programs coordinator for the city, told commissioners that if Lawrence police and Lawrence-Douglas County Fire Medical responders are unable to give someone a ride out to the shelter, city staff members are on call 24/7. They’re also on call to help staff LCS if needed, Bosch-Hastings said. 

She said LCS is not turning anyone away, and they’ve made arrangements to take in pets as well. LCS has more capacity this year than the city had last year at the shelter and at the community building combined, Bosch-Hastings said. No one from LCS was present for the meeting since the discussion wasn’t initially planned on the agenda.


Staff members have also worked with LCS on a plan for a “sit-up shelter” in the building’s library. That is what it sounds like, Bosch-Hastings said — there would not be beds, but there would be chairs available for people to sit inside and be warm overnight.  

If the shelter does hit capacity, staff members will give people rides to the Santa Fe train depot — the Amtrak station in East Lawrence — where they can have a chair inside to stay warm overnight. Bosch-Hastings said the city is willing to provide staffing to manage that space.

Effective Thursday, Bosch-Hastings said, the Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center homeless outreach team will also have funds through the Kansas Department of Aging and Disability Services to help connect people with hotels.

Bosch-Hastings said that for people who do not choose to seek indoor shelter, the city is providing tents, blankets and other needs that outreach workers hear about.

“The unsheltered people are just like us in that they have free will and cannot be forced to go places they do not want to go,” Bosch-Hastings said. “So at the very minimum, we will continue to try daily to work with these people who are not ready to move indoors to any of the options that we’re able to provide, and we’re just going to continue to try to keep them safe as well.”

Sellers said she believed the city and LCS are telling people what their choices are because it’s convenient for the city and LCS — not because it’s convenient for the people who need shelter. 

“We’re telling people, ‘Yes, you have the autonomy to live outdoors during inclement weather. However, if you want to be warm, the only place you’re gonna go is LCS,’” Sellers said. “Well, I may not want to go to LCS because there might be somebody there who raped me, who beat me, who stole from me, who just gives me the heebie jeebies and I don’t want to be there, but ope — they haven’t reached capacity. So you’ve gotta go there … That doesn’t seem like a choice to me.”

Sellers said she knew what she wanted city staff to do and the motion she wanted to make, but she wanted to second a motion from someone else. 

Commissioner Brad Finkeldei said city and LCS staff members have been working on the emergency sheltering plan, and it’s in the middle of being fully implemented. 


“I guess what you want us to do is make a motion to circumvent all that work, circumvent what they’re doing, circumvent their processes and their beliefs tonight and then order them to do something?” he said. “Because as you sit here today, you believe that is the motion you want us to make, to order our staff to do something outside the plans that they’ve developed with our partners? That’s what you’re asking us to do tonight?”

“As it relates to the disaster declaration, yes,” Sellers responded. “… I’m not trying to derail staff from a plan that has been put together, but I’m pretty sure the plan didn’t take into account inclement weather.”

Finkeldei said inclement weather was part of the plan. 

Commissioner Lisa Larsen said she agreed that the plan has always been for winter sheltering, which includes bad weather situations. She said based on what Bosch-Hastings and Assistant City Manager Brandon McGuire said Tuesday, “I feel as though we are implementing a good plan.”

“The sad thing is that we did have a death, and that’s never, never anything you want to hear about or see happen,” Larsen said. “But I believe from where we’ve come from and where we are now, we’re making some really good headway into a very, extremely complex situation, and I like what I’m hearing as to how they’re rolling it out. That doesn’t mean that we can’t always do better, and we will continue to do better. But I do think that we’re heading in the right direction.”

Mayor Bart Littlejohn said he agreed with Finkeldei, and that there are avenues still available that the city and shelter haven’t had to pursue yet, including the train depot and an additional 45 Pallet shelters that will be constructed on the LCS campus at some point in the future.

“This is always just part of our incremental progress in addressing houselessness and shelter and housing for our folks in town, and I’m heartened to see that we’ve got some solutions in place,” Littlejohn said. 

Finkeldei said the city might open the train depot tomorrow night, or anytime in the coming days. 

“What I’m not willing to do is make a motion to order the staff to open it tonight,” Finkeldei said. 

Some community members watching via Zoom took themselves off mute and chimed in when the majority of commissioners opted to take no action: “You are letting people die”; “Shame on you”; “How many people have to freeze to death before you make a motion to change anything?” 

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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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