Shawnee balances need with neighbors’ concerns in proposed homeless shelter code

Planning commissioners on Oct. 19 discussed proposed changes and after raising concerns about the various needs of people without shelter as well as neighboring property owners, agreed to continue the public hearing to Monday, Nov. 16. Above, beds for guests at Project 1020, a cold-weather shelter in Lenexa. File photo.

The Shawnee Planning Commission will meet again to continue discussions on where and how homeless shelters could operate in the city.

Planning commissioners on Oct. 19 discussed proposed changes and after raising concerns about the various needs of people without shelter as well as neighboring property owners, agreed to continue the public hearing to Monday, Nov. 16.

Here are the proposed definitions for homeless shelters in Shawnee as presented to the commission last month:

  • Homeless shelter — a building, or portion thereof, operated by a nonprofit entity for the purpose of providing shelter and sleeping accommodations to people. A homeless shelter may include related support such as meals, medical services, social services, counseling, and training.
  • Homeless shelter, temporary — a homeless shelter in operation for no longer than sixty (60) consecutive days and only once per calendar year.
  • Crisis shelter — a building, or portion thereof, operated by a nonprofit entity for the purpose of providing shelter and sleeping accommodations to people experiencing abuse such as, but not limited to: domestic violence, sexual assault, human trafficking, or stalking. A crisis shelter may include related support such as meals, medical services, social services, counseling, and training.

Under these conditions, homeless shelters operating more than 60 days a year would have to obtain a special use permit in order to open. Stephanie Malmborg, deputy community development director, said the city will consider proposals for permanent homeless shelters on a case-by-case basis.

Balancing needs for shelter with concerns from neighboring homeowners

Anticipating pushback from Shawnee residents, the planning commission generally seemed open to allowing shelters to operate in any zoning district in the city, except for in residential districts and in the downtown area.

Additionally, the planning commission asked city staff to develop more flexibility around seasonal and temporary shelters responding to emergencies such as severe/inclement weather and natural disasters. One way is to expand temporary and seasonal shelters to operate beyond 60 days.

However, the commission also wanted to ensure the city code is considerate of concerns from neighboring property owners.

“We need to consider doing this because there are homeless people that we can help by doing this, but we have to do it in a city that probably is not going to like it very damn much in a whole bunch of places,” said Chairman Dennis Busby. “And one of the things we have to keep in mind is we have to limit the potential for unintended consequences perceived as negative or in conflict with community character, economic viability and existing or future plans and policies.”

Below if a copy of the video discussion, starting at 1:20:47:

As proposed last month, temporary shelters as well as homeless shelters and crisis shelters as permitted accessory uses within religious institutions would follow certain requirements, including:

  • Maximum of 16 beds in residentially zoned districts
  • Limited to 10% of the floor area of the story where it is located
  • Building must have a fire suppression and fire alarm system
  • Additional building and fire code review required

Malmborg said crisis shelters would be considered a permitted use because the nature of crisis shelters requires confidentiality of their locations (such as SAFEHOME). If the city had considered crisis shelters to be special uses that require public hearings, the city would be required to notify neighboring property owners, which would reveal the secret location.

Some commissioners also wanted to ensure shelters provide the following:

  • Enclosed building (tents wouldn’t count as shelter)
  • A management plan
  • Adequate restrooms and showers
  • Safe storage of belongings for people staying at the shelter

City leaders and staff also supported developing a collaborative approach that connects people with shelters as well as county resources.

“I don’t know how we can write this unless we get into such a long code that we’re really pigeon-holing everything down to almost nothing,” said Chairman Dennis Busby. File photo

“I know that we’re kind of on the leading edge of this, and this is great, but I just didn’t know if we ever thought about the other side of it,” said Commissioner Kathy Peterson, adding that she’s also concerned about turning away families if a shelter runs out of beds.

Several commissioners said they wanted to be able to address neighboring homeowners’ concerns with shelters seeking to open in a residential area.

“There are way too many variables,” Busby said. “I don’t know how we can write this unless we get into such a long code that we’re really pigeon-holing everything down to almost nothing. That really bothers me because I don’t think there’s a way to do it other than that. And yet if we don’t add some things in here that they must have, then I’m not sure we’re writing good policy with what we’re doing.”

Malmborg noted that this is a starting point and city staff can make adjustments to address the commissioners’ wishes to be flexible and responsive needs but also considerate of neighboring property owners’ concerns.

“The goal here is to not only make sure that we are accepting of fulfilling these needs in our community, but also in such a way that they don’t have to wait 60 or 90 days to get through a special use process when the weather gets down to the 20s, negative 10s, five days from now,” Malmborg said. “That’s sort of what we’re going for here, having some options that are ready to go and some options that are more long-term.”