New director opens Lawrence Community Shelter as weather emergency shelter during 100-degree days

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As the season’s first heat advisory goes into effect Monday and temps hit 100°, people living outside will be able to seek refuge at the Lawrence Community Shelter, under the new director’s watch.

Executive Director James Chiselom will soon wrap up his sixth month at the helm of the local emergency shelter. 

In past years, the shelter and the City of Lawrence have braced for inclement winter weather, hence the WES — “winter emergency shelter.” 

Chiselom said in May that he wanted to broaden that to “weather emergency shelter.” 

“People die in the heat, too, just like they die in the cold,” he says, and that problem is only going to grow as the climate crisis worsens. 

Molly Adams / Lawrence Times The day room at the Lawrence Community Shelter

This summer, weather emergency shelter is happening at LCS.

During a typical day, the shelter’s night-by-night guests — the majority of folks, ones who aren’t in one of LCS’s longer-term rehousing programs — leave the building at 7 a.m. As the summer heat peaks, guests will not be required to leave when the temperature is 100° or higher. 

People didn’t have to leave during the coldest moments of this past winter, either, when Lawrence saw multiple subzero-degree days and dangerous wind chills. But it got chaotic inside LCS — and those days were also during Chiselom’s first month on the job. 

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“This year, it won’t be like that, because we’ve learned more,” Chiselom says. “We know what we need to do. It won’t be like that at all. It won’t be like it was.”

The temperature has only hit 100° once so far this year, but that will likely change as soon as this week, according to the National Weather Service in Topeka. This week’s heat advisory spans from noon Monday through 8 p.m. Tuesday, and temperatures will likely climb to a high of 100° with a heat index of 108° to 110°. 

Last year, Lawrence had 14 days with temperatures greater than 100°, peaking at 8 days during August. 

The weather emergency shelter change is one among many that Chiselom has made since he was selected to lead the organization. He says he’ll share his vision with people, and it can be adjusted based on the feedback he’s getting.

Touring the building, he recounts which bathrooms have been significantly remodeled; where walls have been painted with trauma-informed colors; where mice used to play. He can show you where old carpets have been taken out so the floor could be tiled, and which of the old carpets are still a bit too daunting to pull up. 

Molly Adams / Lawrence Times The walls inside the shelter are being refreshed with calming blue paint.
Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Some of the shelter’s bathrooms have recently been remodeled. Others are still on the list of future projects.

“I tell people now I know it feels different, but we’re in transition, and hopefully it’s not feeling worse — it’s feeling better,” he says. “And that’s kind of the sense that I’m getting — my job is to respond to people.”

One response to a need came in the form of a refrigerator added to the women’s intake area, where guests of longer-term programs can keep food. Food isn’t allowed in the sleeping areas in order to avoid pest problems, but guests can access their food in the fridge around the clock, Chiselom said. 

He has plans still for many of the physical spaces in the shelter, some in progress and some in planning stages. 

Another upcoming change will be the addition of a mezzanine in one area of the shelter to add storage space. Chiselom says people experiencing homelessness often take everything that’s valuable to them everywhere they go. LCS is giving people space to leave some belongings there.

Molly Adams / Lawrence Times The men’s dorm at the Lawrence Community Shelter

There’s a lot of unused vertical space that could go to a better use in the men’s sleeping area. The LCS board of directors last week approved an agreement for a contractor to take on that work. 

The shelter is also working with community partners to help guests with services beyond LCS’s general areas of focus.

For instance, Lawrence-Douglas County Public Health’s new Wellness Wednesdays each month at the shelter offer guests a chance to access many health care services that would be available to them at the main LDCPH clinic. 

In May, the Lawrence Humane Society and League of Women Voters of Lawrence and Douglas County tagged along to provide vaccines and health care for pets staying at LCS with their owners, and to provide voting information, respectively. 

“We’re starting to meet with people in the community, agencies in the community, to say, ‘What do you need from us? Here’s what we do. How can we help?’” Chiselom says. “‘How can we work together so anybody that needs some services for homelessness, we know how to alleviate the barriers of getting some of those services?’” 

Admiration is evident as Chiselom talks about shelter guests who have become employees. 

One guest didn’t have experience working in a kitchen but talked Chiselom into letting him cook. 

“It’s just taking pride in what you do,” Chiselom says. “… We give opportunities for people to start to feel good about themselves.” 

There are currently two guest-employees, Lacee Roe, director of community engagement, said Friday. They meet with their case managers to work toward securing permanent housing as part of their employment conditions, and they’re actively participating in the shelter’s Rapid Rehousing program. 

Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Lacee Roe, director of community engagement for Lawrence Community Shelter, chats about the community garden outside the building during a May 14, 2024 interview.

Many of the staff members are fairly new to the shelter. Turnover rates were very high, and Chiselom says he was surprised when he started meeting numerous people who had only been there for a week or a month once he started in his position. 

One of the newer staff members is Chef Moe Pearson. “Chef Moe” comes to LCS after working at Greek houses at K-State and KU. Chiselom says you can head off a lot of bad behaviors simply by giving people good food. 

Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Chef Moe Pearson

Some who have been there longer are seeing changes firsthand over time. 

Shift lead Bree Helms started working at LCS in August. She had just returned from about two months of maternity leave during the Times’ May tour of the building. 

“The positive change is so strong,” Helms said a few hours into their first shift back. “I knew we were capable of it, but I didn’t think that we would be this far, at this level right now.”

Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Bree Helms

Chiselom came to Topeka from Detroit in 1989 and started working with people with intellectual and developmental disabilities at the Kansas Neurological Institute in 1990. He says he learned a valuable lesson there that has shaped his attitude.

“If I never give up on somebody, I can be the key to them, from where they are to where they want to go,” Chiselom says. “Somehow that stuck with me — never give up on somebody.”

“… Sometimes you have to disengage because it might just be to a point where to stay engaged would just make the situation worse, but I never give up thinking that there’s something I can do to help that person,” even though today might not be the day, Chiselom says. 

Molly Adams / Lawrence Times James Chiselom

He later worked at drug and alcohol treatment centers and supportive living houses, and ultimately went to work as Emergency Solutions Grant program manager at the Kansas Housing Resources Corporation for 11 or 12 years. He retired from that job, “but I also knew that I had to keep helping people,” so he started volunteering at Topeka Rescue Mission, he says. 

He wasn’t looking for a job, but he couldn’t say no once the mission asked him enough to go to work for them. He managed the human trafficking and street outreach departments and the distribution center. 

He came to the Lawrence Community Shelter in January, selected after a national search

“I learned a lot in those couple of years I was at the mission, about myself and about people,” he says. “And I was able to put into practice — I made that more important than anything else I did — to care about people for real. And not just because you’re paid to do it, but do it because it means something to you.”

Chiselom has been in recovery from addiction for almost 32 years.

“I can tell people what I did to change, and if I can do it, anybody can, and I actually believe that,” he says. 

He didn’t do anything complicated. The first thing you have to do is not drink or use, he says.

“But then I had to learn how to be who I was,” he says. “I had to learn how to live in this world without the use of a substance that made me feel different. And sometimes that means I had to accept the way I feel.”

Congregate shelter — where everyone is sleeping in large, shared rooms — can be difficult for a lot of people. Many folks would prefer to sleep outside than in that situation. 

Chiselom says he understands. LCS is working to make more spaces more private, such as the longer-term women’s dorm, where each bed is cordoned off by curtains.

There are also StepUp Beds, which create more privacy for guests and which Chiselom says would be a game changer. Shelter KC has installed them, according to the company’s website. 

One solution to that issue, for a time, was Monarch Village, a group of 12 steel shipping containers that were turned into tiny home-like shelters. But those have developed moisture issues that have led to mold and they aren’t currently safe for guests, Chiselom says. 

“People staying here did not wreck them,” Roe says. 

LCS is operating Pallet Village on North Michigan Street, a group of 50 cabin-like shelters intended to help people transition out of homelessness. LCS is hopeful to have more Pallet shelters constructed outside the main shelter building at 3655 E. 25th St. in time for winter. 

Molly Adams / Lawrence Times A pet crate sits on the floor near a bed in the women’s dorm.

LCS did change its policy during the cold snap in January to allow guests to have one pet with them. That continues, and volunteer efforts are underway to construct a dog run outside for the pups of the shelter. 

The shelter is also allowing people who aren’t from Lawrence and don’t have Douglas County ties three-day respite stays until they need to go someplace else.

Chiselom says LCS doesn’t require ID, but they get enough information from people to verify who they are and see if they’re from Lawrence. Shelter staff can check the HMIS, or homeless management information system, to see if folks are included in records there.

Service providers can also make referrals with information about why someone should stay at the shelter, what treatments or programs they might be setting up and so forth, Roe says.

“We don’t want to encourage people to come to Lawrence because we have a shelter and we’re doing wonderful things,” Chiselom says, “because that will overgrow our population beyond our capacity to serve. So we don’t serve people that are not from Douglas County.”

Learn more about the Lawrence Community Shelter on its website,

Molly Adams / Lawrence Times The community garden at the shelter is a monarch butterfly waystation. The garden gives guests an opportunity to get their hands in the dirt, and to watch their work come to life.
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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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