‘This is actually the heart of Lawrence’: Advocates grateful for community’s support during cold snap

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Lawrence community members helped around the clock during the recent extreme cold snap — keeping daytime warming stations and overnight emergency shelters running, providing transportation to get folks out of the cold, and contributing huge amounts of supplies. 

Emergency shelter is a temporary bandage for a bigger-picture problem of homelessness and lack of affordable housing, but advocates are confident that community efforts over the past couple of weeks of extreme weather saved lives. 

“I wish we did not have a need for a shelter,” Pastor Jeff Mercer of University Community of Christ said. “But until we can get that issue addressed, I felt just blessed to be able to pitch in and help out.”

Misty Bosch-Hastings, homeless programs coordinator for the City of Lawrence, said she wanted to recognize the many people who have been bringing meals to shelters and volunteering to help.

Misty Bosch-Hastings

“We could not have done this so well without them. That was amazing,” Bosch-Hastings said. 

As just one example, a family had been bringing hot meals to the emergency overnight shelter at the Amtrak station for the last week, Bosch-Hastings said. The family has reached out to ask about continuing to provide frozen meals that could be heated up at the city-sanctioned campsite in North Lawrence or in a pan of boiling water over a campfire, she said. 

“The way that the community has rallied around to make this happen — this is not the typical story on homelessness,” Bosch-Hastings said. 

“And I love that this is actually the heart of Lawrence. It’s not all the critical things that you see in social media. This is actually what’s happening, with boots on the ground where needed. There were so many people that came to help.”

‘It says a lot about our community’

As numbers of people seeking shelter climbed amid the extreme cold, University Community of Christ opened another overflow shelter for a week, starting the night of Jan. 16. 

Mercer said the church had a roof and heat — and then people started showing up with food, clothing donations and more, and stopping by just to see if they could help out in any way. 

“It warmed our hearts to see the community do that,” Mercer said. “…  It says a lot about our community, the way that people will respond when there’s a crisis. And we were just happy to do our part.”

Mercer said the church was assessed to provide shelter for up to 25 people, and about 18 to 20 showed up to the walk-in shelter each night. Sometimes people would be dropped off by police or other folks who saw people outside and brought them in, at all hours of the night. 

“But they got out of the cold. And so I’m glad that we were there for that,” Mercer said. “We would have made it work if we had to expand beyond (25).” 

He said the people who stayed there were very respectful and grateful, and when it came time for Sunday worship service and Sunday school, everybody moved out of the way of the congregation. They were able to do everything they normally do in addition to hosting guests, he said. 

“I hear people saying, ‘Oh, that must have been horrible.’ No, it wasn’t. It really wasn’t,” he said. 

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He understands that some people have concerns about working with people experiencing homelessness and “there’s going to be some incidents from time to time,” Mercer said, but overall, “I think you see people who are grateful.” 

The worst problem UCC had that week? A clogged toilet, Mercer said, and someone with the city came to fix that. 

The church went through a brief orientation last week, “and every time there was a question, somebody was able to raise their hand and say, ‘Oh, we’ve got that. We’ve got that covered,’” Mercer said.

He said he would look back on the week as a very positive experience for the congregation, “and I hope it was for the folks who needed a warm place to lay their head down at night.”

‘Our community absolutely saved lives’

Lacee Roe, director of community engagement for the Lawrence Community Shelter, said that “The response from our community has been incredible.”

Some people organized big donation drives, and a lot of new people signed up to volunteer at LCS, Roe said. The shelter also received 96 Amazon boxes of donations in just one day last week. 

Coordinating with the city and church to provide overflow shelters and help with transportation has been great, and friends at the Lawrence Humane Society made sure LCS had everything needed for pets staying there with their owners, she said. 

“Seeing our community come together, and seeing all of the people who stepped up to help, has been truly inspiring,” Roe said. “That collective effort from our community absolutely saved lives.”

Ecumenical Campus Ministries, a community justice center at 1204 Oread Ave., was converted into a warming station during the day to provide food, shelter, entertainment and showers, ECM Director David Cooper said via email.

ECM also functioned as a hub for donations, to help distribute warm clothes, blankets, shoes, underwear, hygiene kits and more supplies for people who are unhoused. 

“We were also able to coordinate rides, getting folks to shelters in the evening, as well as food donations to those who elected to stay in the camps through the cold,” he said. 

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Cooper said ECM received an outpouring of support from the community. 

“Dozens of individuals stepped up, making time to volunteer and spend time with folks, bringing in donations and food, helping with rides and deliveries, or simply providing financial support for everything we were doing,” Cooper said. “We’ve also received a lot of thanks, both from unhoused folks who spent time with us, as well as other service providers in our community.”

As of Monday, ECM had to cut back on the services it’s able to provide, but people are still coming by to “hang out, help out, and find comfort and community here,” Cooper said. 

Trina Tinsley and her son, Jax, founded The Jax Project to support people experiencing homelessness in Lawrence. They regularly serve Sunday dinners at the North Lawrence campsite and partner with advocacy groups and individuals to connect with people and help fill their needs.

Trina and Jax Tinsley

Tinsley said there has been an amazing response from community members and advocates working toward a collaborative effort to serve people who are unhoused. She said “there is no doubt” that lives were saved because of community efforts, including those of Bosch-Hastings, service providers and local churches.

The Jax Project and ​​others were able to provide food and transportation to and from shelters, as well as to serve people who chose to stay outside, Tinsley said. 

She said there was a huge effort to strategically track every single unhoused community member to ensure that they didn’t lose anyone.

“It has been a true blessing to see everyone pull together through this winter emergency to serve our unhoused community members,” she said. 

Bosch-Hastings credited Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center staff members for stepping up to help staff the Lawrence Community Shelter and the overflow shelter at the Amtrak station as needed. 

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She said Lawrence police helped, too — for example, because of the positive relationship one officer had with a woman seeking shelter, the officer was able to talk her into going to get help at the Douglas County Treatment and Recovery Center when no one else could.

“Those are the kinds of things that are really happening, and that are really meaningful,” she said. 

Bosch-Hastings also expressed gratitude for Bob Tryanski, Douglas County’s director of behavioral health projects, and Jill Jolicoeur, assistant county administrator, for troubleshooting issues that arose over the weekends, as well as TRC staff members who went above and beyond to help. 

“Just a lot of good stuff happening,” she said. 

Current and future needs

The overflow emergency shelters closed Wednesday morning, so the primary option to seek a warm place to stay overnight is the Lawrence Community Shelter, 3655 E. 25th St. 

As people exit the overflow shelters, Bosch-Hastings said staff members of the city and Bert Nash as well as community advocates have been helping to make sure people have supplies they need, and helping to transport people back to campsites where they were staying before the cold snap.

“Just trying to make sure that they’re not just going blindly back out to tents that may have been damaged,” she said. “We still wanted to keep people safe as we close.”

Tinsley said there’s a huge need right now for tents, blankets, sleeping bags, pillows, propane heaters, hygiene products and clothing. She said that while many unhoused community members were seeking indoor shelter, the few belongings they had were stolen or destroyed. 

She said there’s also a constant need for nonperishable food items to be donated, and food to be turned into meals.

Tinsley previously said the Jax Project can serve as a bridge between community members wanting to get involved and local efforts offering opportunities. Folks can directly message the Jax Project on its Facebook page to volunteer with the organization or for help getting in contact with other advocates.

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Bosch-Hastings said the city would open the Amtrak station for emergency shelter again if it is needed. 

Mercer said the University Community of Christ congregation had previously helped with serving community meals and held winter clothing drives, but this was the first time he had overseen an emergency winter shelter. He said UCC would “definitely” be open to sheltering folks again if the need arises.

“I think that’s part of who we are, and we would have no qualms. This worked out well,” he said. 

Advocates would encourage anyone who is considering volunteering to do so. 

“If you’ve got a compassionate heart, you’re equipped,” Mercer said he tells people in UCC’s congregation. “That’s all the training you need.” 

People who are interested in volunteering at the Lawrence Community Shelter can sign up at lawrenceshelter.org/volunteer.

The city will provide information if volunteers are needed again for overflow emergency shelters. It has used the United Way website to post volunteer opportunities this year. 

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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.

Maya Hodison (she/her), equity reporter, can be reached at mhodison (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Read more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.

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