Federal judge hears arguments in Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist case seeking right to operate homeless shelter near Old Town Lenexa

Project 1020 is providing motel rooms for clients experiencing homelessness, like this man who asked not to be named.

A federal judge on Thursday oversaw a hearing in a lawsuit filed by Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church against the city of Lenexa, which has denied the church’s request to house clients of Project 1020, a cold weather homeless shelter previously based in Olathe.

Because Project 1020 has no permanent space, it is putting clients in motel rooms. Some are declining a room to save money for Project 1020; in those cases, the organization is providing sleeping bags and tent supplies.

Judge Daniel Crabtree, a United States District Judge, heard arguments from both the church and the city on the case. The courtroom at the Robert J. Dole Courthouse was filled with orange, as about 75 supporters of the homeless shelter came out in support of the church.

The church is asking the courts to grant a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction, which, if granted, could allow the church to begin operating a homeless shelter for a certain period of time while the case is ongoing and pending a full trial.

The church’s argument for a preliminary injunction asks the courts to maintain the status quo — the status quo being that a homeless ministry is core to the church’s beliefs and should be protected as a First Amendment right.

On the other hand, Lenexa has asked the courts to dismiss the case, arguing that the church did not exhaust its options by going through the city’s appeals process to reconsider the request or by coming up with alternative solutions.

The city’s argument for a preliminary injunction makes a similar request regarding the status quo — only it argues that the status quo is that throughout the church’s history, it has not operated a homeless shelter at that site.

The church property, located at 9400 Pflumm Road in Old Town, is zoned residential. Surrounding it are commercial and retail properties for businesses, single-family homes and train tracks to the north. The church is the former home of Bonjour Elementary.

Dan Dalton, the attorney representing the church, said the church “didn’t have any other options” besides moving forward with a lawsuit. In his oral arguments, he said the city of Lenexa doesn’t have any zoning districts that allow for homeless shelters, which means it’s up to the discretion of city staff to grant or deny the church’s request to operate a homeless shelter.

Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church is located at 9400 Pflumm Road in Old Town.

“In a lot of communities throughout the United States, that’s intentional, the idea being is if they don’t define, they don’t conditionally permit it, then they don’t allow it,” Dalton said. “It really discourages homeless shelters from trying to apply to be in a community because they’re not even allowed.”

In a letter Oct. 23 to the church, Magi Tilton, planning and development administrator for Lenexa, had noted that the high density of the proposed homeless shelter operation — 40 people each night — is similar to the density of a hotel, which would make it too dense in comparison with the neighboring single-family homes.

When Crabtree asked if the city had proposed alternative locations, David Jack, assistant city attorney, said no, but that they had thought conversations with the church would be ongoing. City legal staff said the city had hoped to work with the church on finding an alternative location for a homeless shelter and was therefore not expecting to be served the lawsuit.

Additionally, the city argued that overnight parties and temporary crisis shelters (like in the event of a natural disaster) would be permitted at the church, but a homeless shelter is considered to be permanent, like a home.

“The city is willing to try and work with the church to see if we can find some alternatives,” Jack said. “We just don’t think this use in a residential area is appropriate.”

Barb McEver, co-founder of Project 1020, said they hope to operate a cold weather shelter from the beginning of December through the end of March. Clients would arrive in the evening, eat a hot meal, and have a place to sleep. All she needs is a building.

“In my mind, it’s just so simple. People need to know they matter, and I think that is the first start,” McEver said. “I want to provide an environment where they come in and they feel some reprieve, they feel welcome, and they feel like they matter.”

Project 1020 has been looking for a space for a homeless shelter since the city of Olathe denied its request to operate in a building on West Park Street.

There is one shelter in Johnson County that offers four beds for single adult women, but no shelter for single adult men, according to court documents. Last year, Project 1020 served 240 homeless individuals.

In an email to the Shawnee Mission Post, city spokeswoman Denise Rendina shared the city’s goal moving forward.

“We acknowledge that homelessness is an issue for our county and we would like to be part of a permanent solution for the county as a whole,” she said.

Rendina noted that the Lenexa city council on Tuesday, after its meeting in executive session, unanimously agreed to accept the filing of an appeal by the church, so long as it does so by Feb. 3, 2020.

One client asking for temporary housing; neighbors share mixed feelings

One client who let the Post visit his motel room Thursday evening shared his frustrations with being homeless. He asked not to be named because it could damage his relationship with his employer. Even though he had a full-time job, a bachelor’s degree in secondary education and grew up in Overland Park (he’s a 1991 graduate of SM South), he lost his home after back-to-back tragedies stunned him.

He lost his wife in a car accident with a drunk driver, and his son to suicide about a month later. Because of his savings, it took two years for him to lose everything else he owned, including his house in Overland Park.

“It’s a hellish existence,” he said. “It consumes you when you don’t know where you’re going to stay the next night.”

He noted that he has a new full-time job now, but it’s not enough to pay for housing on top of other expenses. And his situation grew even more precarious after his employer found out he wasn’t getting good rest because he didn’t have a steady place where he could sleep each night.

“Nobody else at my job has to prove they had a place to sleep last night,” he said. He said a homeless shelter in Johnson County would help him get him back on his feet and let him save up for permanent housing on his own.

Neighboring residents and business owners have shared mixed feelings on the homeless shelter. In person, homeowners and businesses close to the church told the Shawnee Mission Post they support the church’s initiative.

“If there’s people on the street around this area and they’re willing to find a home for them, I have no problem with that,” Heidi Seman, a neighboring business owner, adding that she hasn’t seen homeless people in Lenexa. “Why is it going to bother me?”

“I think it’s perfect for them to have a better future, to have a place to sleep at night so they don’t have to worry about tomorrow,” said neighboring resident Carlos Alvarez.

Neighbors on Nextdoor, however, raised concerns and said they wanted more information from the church.

“As a Christian, I feel we need to help the less fortunate,” said Michael Elliott, a resident of Old Town who ran for city council in 2017. “I’m glad that they’re doing that, I just have a problem with the place.”

Elliott said he thinks it’s not an appropriate area because he believes the clients being served are not from the area.

In response, McEver said Project 1020 only serves clients in Johnson County, including some who are from the area but have day jobs in Kansas City, Missouri.

Crabtree said he may make a decision on the church’s request for a temporary restraining order sometime early next week. A hearing for a preliminary injunction may occur at a later date. In the meantime, he told both parties to try to work things out, noting that once he rules, “one of you is going to walk away disappointed.”