With restaurants, libraries closed, Johnson County’s homeless population lacks daytime shelter

The Shawnee city council has adopted regulations that allow homeless shelters in any part of the city. Meanwhile, Lenexa is working to develop its own homeless shelter regulations. Above, empty cots at a shelter in a Lenexa church.

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It’s one thing for a homeowner or renter to follow a stay-at-home order. It’s entirely something else for someone without a home, and with all the libraries, coffee shops and indoor gathering spaces closed during the COVID-19 pandemic, Johnson County’s homeless population is running out of places to go.

It’s been about a week since the CORE 4 governments put a stay-at-home order in place for the Kansas City metro area. The libraries have been closed even longer than that. Restaurants, coffee shops, bars and breweries have shuttered their dining and drinking spaces, operating on curbside pickup, takeout and deliveries. Those were the only places left for homeless people to go indoors.

The thought has weighed on Barb McEver, co-founder of Project 1020, Johnson County’s only homeless shelter for single adults.

“When you’re homeless, you don’t have a home to stay in,” McEver said. “So I can’t even imagine hearing all this stuff on the news and on the internet and thinking, ‘Where in the world am I going to stay? I have no place to stay.’”

At night, the guests at the shelter ask McEver where they can go during the day while the shelter is closed — it’s only open from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. She doesn’t have answers.

“I totally get having to close businesses, I completely get it,” McEver said. “I know everybody’s overwhelmed, and everybody’s learning this as they go. I can’t imagine what the leaders of the cities and counties and state and everything, how everybody’s working their tails off.

“But I think there is a population that hasn’t been a priority. There’s nowhere to go. All the places that people used to go are closed.”

‘I don’t think people really realize the magnitude of where do you go’

Barb McEver, co-founder of Project 1020, said people without work or homes have nowhere to go during the COVID-19 shutdown.

Meanwhile, Project 1020 has done some of its own things to keep the guests and volunteers safe and healthy. Volunteers are disinfecting frequently touched areas. A hand sanitizing station is set up at the entrance, and guests keep spaced apart where they can. And each room has only 10 beds, which keeps each area in line with the 10-person limit on nights that are full.

And on the bright side, tips have been great for Todd Wilson, one of the guests, who makes food deliveries. Other guests also leave for work, but for those without work, “there’s absolutely nowhere to take anyone,” McEver said.

“If they need to charge their cellphone, there’s no place to do that,” she said. “There’s no place to use the restroom. There’s no good place to go in if the weather’s not good. We’ve been lucky in that respect, except for the rain.”

McEver said charging stations for cellphones are critical for homeless people. A cellphone is often the only way they can stay connected with family and friends, keep up with current events (especially during the COVID-19 pandemic) and apply for jobs.

Some restaurants also have a policy against walkups at the drive-thru, which presents another challenge for the homeless population on foot.

“Unless you’re involved in it in some sort of way, I don’t think people really realize the magnitude of where do you go,” she added.

As a cold weather shelter, Project 1020’s last night open is Tuesday. Come April 1, the homeless population won’t have anywhere to stay at night either. The city of Lenexa, where the shelter is now located at a church in Old Town, is collaborating with stakeholders to discuss zoning regulations for homeless shelters. The city canceled its March 24 meeting to discuss zoning regulations for the homeless shelter, due to the restrictions on gathering spaces during the COVID-19 pandemic. The city will reschedule that meeting in the future.