Lenexa on verge of changing city code to allow homeless shelters

Currently, there is only one cold weather shelter in all of Johnson County that accommodates single adult men. Under Lenexa's proposed code, shelters of any size could operate in certain commercial districts in the city. Above, guests at Project 1020, a shelter inside Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church, grab some dinner on a recent evening. Photo credit Leah Wankum.

Lenexa is making progress on new city codes that would regulate homeless shelters in the city.

The Lenexa Planning Commission on Monday night considered city staff’s proposed regulations that govern the operations of such shelters.

Central to the conversation was finding a balance between accommodating the unique circumstances of Project 1020, the only cold weather shelter in Johnson County that serves single adult men, and building new codes that would fit for any future shelters in Lenexa.

Project 1020 is located at Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church.

Barb McEver, co-founder of Project 1020, checks residents’ temperatures and asks if they have any symptoms of COVID-19 before they enter the shelter.

Under the proposed code, homeless shelters of any size can operate in certain commercial districts — provided they obtain a special use permit and meet city requirements for a management plan.

Shelters can also operate in places of worship anywhere in the city, but they will be capped at 10 guests. Shelters in place of worship can have up to 30 guests if the building has at least 30,000 square feet of space.

Barb McEver, co-founder of Project 1020, said working with the city of Lenexa has been easier than what they experienced in other cities.

“Again, I really appreciate everything everybody’s done, all the consideration, all the research,” McEver said. “Instead of setting up barriers, in trying to work with us, it really helps a lot. And it gives the people that we serve a much better feeling. They feel like they’re more part of something, more part of the community than just people that are being pushed aside. I thank the city of Lenexa for that.”

Here are five key points of discussion for the proposed codes to regulate homeless shelters:

Expanding the number of operational days

  • Because November often has several days or weeks of cold weather, Commissioner John Handley suggested that shelters in Lenexa be allowed to operate between Nov. 1 and April 1.
  • This would be an increase from the days Project 1020 is currently allowed to operate, which has been Dec. 1 to March 31.
  • City councilmembers have expressed interest in seeing a year-round shelter. While city staff seemed open to allowing year-round operations, they currently oppose recommending shelters hosted at places of worship to expand from the cold weather months to year-round operations.

Staffing levels

  • City leaders and staff clarified how many employees or volunteers are required for the number of guests at a shelter.
  • The new draft code states that a homeless shelter must have at least two employees/volunteers for the first 10 guests, and that number of required workers goes up as more guests are accommodated.

    Project 1020’s storage room is loaded with clothing, blankets, medical/hygiene items and other essential goods for residents’ needs. Above, Patti Jones sorts through boxes of items that were donated for the shelter.
  • McEver said she hoped for more flexibility in staffing levels at Project 1020, particularly between 1 and 4 a.m., when most guests are asleep and shelter activity is quiet. Some commissioners also shared their support for flexible language around staffing levels.

Transportation issues

  • The proposed code requires that a homeless shelter must be located within a half mile from a transit stop or have reliable private transportation available for guests.
  • A previous draft of the code disregarded a shelter’s transportation resources, which greatly limited the number of locations for a shelter hosted by a place of worship to operate.
  • City leaders have voiced support for broadening this language to be flexible for shelters’ unique resources and needs.

Showers and bathing facilities

  • Lenexa may require homeless shelters to offer showers and/or bathing facilities on the premises as part of a condition to operate in the city.
  • But Dale Trott, a board member at Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church, said this requirement would be financially burdensome for the church hosting Project 1020.
  • The church is the site of a former elementary school with no shower or bathing facilities. Trott estimated that building those would cost about $50,000.
  • Project 1020 currently takes guests to showering/bathing facilities off site.

Duration of special use permits

  • Under the proposed code, homeless shelters operating in certain commercial districts would require a special use permit.
  • The duration of the first permit would be for five years, and permit renewals would also occur every five years.

    Teri Lynn Vincent jokes a lot over dinner at Project 1020.
  • This is an increase from an earlier proposal, which had recommended three years for the first permit issuance.
  • Julie Brewer, executive director of United Community Services of Johnson County, said three years was too short to allow shelters the time necessary to scale up and obtain grant funding.

The planning commission voted 8-0 to advance the proposed amendments to the city code, subject to the following three changes:

  1. A homeless shelter must have at least two employees and/or volunteers for the first 10 guests. The shelter must have at least three employees/volunteers for a guest count of 11-20, four employees/volunteers for a guest count of 21-30, and so on.
  2. A homeless shelter requiring a special use permit would be good for five years (city staff previously proposed three years).
  3. A cold-weather homeless shelter could operate between Nov. 1 and April 1.

The Lenexa City Council will discuss and consider adopting the proposed code on Tuesday, March 16.

Commissioner Ben Harber was absent.