New Lawrence Community Shelter director: Cleanliness, security need work; staff is ‘wonderful’

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With just shy of three weeks at the helm of the Lawrence Community Shelter, James Chiselom has determined that the building needs some deep cleaning, improvements to security and more places for guests to go.

However, he told the shelter’s board of directors during their meeting Thursday that the LCS staff is “wonderful.”

“They’re energetic, they’re wanting to do a good job for the people they serve, and I’m listening to them and getting their input on what they want to do,” Chiselom said.

The new director started in his role Jan. 5 — just days before two weeks of dangerous winter weather hit Lawrence.

Staff members have been unable to clean much during the past couple of weeks because the building has been packed, Chiselom said. The shelter’s capacity is 140, but they have seen more than 160 guests during recent extreme cold weather. The average number of guests for January has been 134, he said.

“The shelter is barely manageable with that many people in the building at one time,” Chiselom said. There weren’t enough staff members to keep the whole building secure, so they weren’t able to allow people to be back in the warehouse. “It was people sitting on top of each other.”

This time has given him a chance to identify everything that is not the way it should be, Chiselom said.

He said they’re not able to secure the building the way they need to because all traffic is through the front door, including guests going outside to smoke. An area to the south of the shelter building will become the designated smoking area, and Chiselom said he’s working with the city to get swipe cards for the back door so registered guests can have secure access to get in and out of the building.

On Tuesday, when temperatures got above freezing, LCS had to exit guests in order to clean the building, Chiselom said. They’ve also had some staff shortages because of a COVID-19 outbreak, so “we fed people,” but guests didn’t have a full dinner service Wednesday night, Chiselom said.

They started to clean one area and attempted to clean the carpet, but it was carpet squares that were beyond cleaning, so they’ve started pulling those up.

“We’re at a point now where that has to be one of the things that needs to be addressed immediately — the cleanliness of the structure, in order to go forward with the programs that we’re talking about,” Chiselom said.

One of the next items to check off his to-do list is to finalize job descriptions and start hiring staff for the Pallet village. Melanie Valdez, the former interim executive director of the shelter, will be handling HR and payroll for the time being since she knows the systems, Chiselom said.

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He’s planning to hire a manager for Pallet — the village of 50 small, cabin-like structures on North Michigan Street — followed by staff for the site. The village has been constructed but will need staff before it can open, and it will aim to serve primarily veterans, survivors of domestic violence, and older and disabled people.

Once people can start moving into the Pallet village, it will give guests at the main shelter campus a little more breathing room.

Chiselom also wants to compile better demographics of the people the shelter is serving, he said, and to start highlighting successes.

Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Pallet village

The city is planning to hold a celebration of the Pallet village being constructed, and if a quorum of board members will be in attendance, they will need to post a notice to the public.

Board Treasurer Rebekah Gaston said she thought it was important to communicate that “we’re not ready (to open Pallet), and we’re not expected to be ready yet.”

Board President Charlie Bryan said some people have compared the situation to the Douglas County Treatment and Recovery Center, which had a ribbon cutting celebration in June 2022 but did not open until nearly 10 months later.

“But it’s a good milestone, I think, for the community to know that it’s ready to go,” Bryan said.

In other business:

The board held a 45-minute executive session with Chiselom and Jake Miller, a Kansas City-based labor attorney who typically represents unions but has occasionally represented management for progressive organizations that unionize. Shelter staff members on Dec. 1 voted unanimously to unionize.

After a second executive session, the board authorized Chiselom to execute an employee retention agreement with Valdez of up to $5,000.

The shelter board’s next regular meeting is set for Thursday, Feb. 22, and the agenda will include a presentation on LCS’s annual financial audit.

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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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