Published October 28th, 2019 at 11:39 AM
With cold weather setting in, and winter fast approaching, advocates for Johnson County’s homeless population are scrambling to reconstitute an effort that has provided overnight shelter for the past four years.
The latest setback came last week, when the city of Lenexa rejected a proposal to house approximately 40 people nightly from December through March in Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church (SMUUC) at 9400 Pflumm Road.
The city determined that a homeless shelter is impermissible in a church because it would “change the intensity and nature of the principal use of the property,” according to an Oct. 23 letter the city sent to the church.
The proposed use was more like a hotel, the city said, which is not allowed in the residential, single-family district in which the church sits.
“I absolutely know there is a need,” said Lenexa City Manager Beccy Yocham. “But we have to think whether it is appropriate, and we don’t think it is here.”
The nonprofit Project 1020 is the driving force behind the effort to open what would be the county’s only shelter specifically for adult-only households. Supporters are hoping there might still be a solution for this winter in Lenexa, but other than that, there is no Plan B at the moment.
The quandary illustrates the difficulties of serving a relatively small, but needy, group of people in one of the wealthiest parts of the metropolitan area.
It is something that should not be difficult for her home community to do, said the Rev. Rose Schwab, senior minister at SMUUC. Schwab said she was “deeply disappointed and troubled” by the city’s decision, adding that she hoped that “we as a church can continue to be agents to combat poverty and economic injustice.”
Consistent with national trends, Johnson County’s homeless population is trending older and toward households with no children, according to United Community Services of Johnson County (UCS), a lead agency in addressing homelessness in the county. Single males are particularly under served in Johnson County.
The latest official homeless count in the county, conducted in January, found:
Meanwhile, 43 percent of the households included people who were working either full- or part-time, according to UCS Community Planning Director Valorie Carson.
That means finding them shelter near their jobs is imperative, Carson said. Even if case workers can find an open bed in another community, which is often difficult anyway, that is unhelpful for a homeless employee.
“You are making them choose between losing their job and finding shelter,” Carson said.
Project 1020, led by Olathe resident Barb McEver, takes its name from its original, modest goal of serving 10 people on nights when temperatures were below 21 degrees.
But it has grown to an organization that last winter operated nightly between Dec. 1 and April 1 at The Branches Church, 13020 S. Black Bob Road, in Olathe. The shelter served 240 individuals in that time.
And that expanding mission ultimately proved unworkable in Olathe, which is why Project 1020 had pinned its hopes on the Lenexa church. The path in Olathe has been a tortured one for the past year, and it centers on a building that McEver and her husband, Marc, purchased at 725 W. Park St. as a site for a permanent homeless shelter.
As Olathe officials acknowledge, the city initially assured the McEvers that a homeless shelter was a permitted use for the building.
But the city reversed course in November, declaring that newly revised land-use regulations now made a homeless shelter a “special use” at the Park Street location. At a public hearing on the special use permit, held in February, neighbors expressed concerns about safety for their children and the potential to reduce their property values.
The McEvers withdrew their application, and in August, the city purchased the Park Street building from the McEvers for $302,416. City spokesman Tim Danneberg said the City Council believed it was the right thing to do given the mixed messages provided to the couple.
He said the city is considering using the building as a new home for its facility maintenance division.
Project 1020 officials believe Olathe is the best spot for its shelter, given its concentration of government services and safety-net agencies. But they argue that another zoning change in Olathe has all but legislated the nonprofit out of Olathe.
The new “crisis care network” zoning regulation says no religious or faith-based congregation can host guests for more than five weeks per year. The host site is also limited to no more than six individual, private sleeping rooms.
Olathe officials insist the change was made to facilitate efforts like the Johnson County Interfaith Hospitality Network, which provides the short-term services covered in the new ordinance. They also argue that their codes still allow for a homeless shelter in relevant, appropriate districts.
Danneberg said public safety was one of the biggest problems with the Project 1020 operation at The Branches Church. The city logged nearly four dozen police calls to the shelter during its time of operation, including several medical issues and various disturbances, both verbal and physical.
Barb McEver said Project 1020 learned from its experience last winter. With help from various social service agencies, including the Salvation Army and Catholic Charities, the organization has developed policies and procedures, is in the process of hiring a case manager, and is training volunteers.
Another committed volunteer is Lee Jost, pastor of Christ The Servant Covenant Church in Olathe. He helped write the policies and procedures to help professionalize Project 1020.
As of Friday, he said, members of the homeless planning committee were uncertain about next steps for the short- or long-term.
Jost was heartened that, in its letter, the city left the door open to more discussions about helping the group find an appropriate location for its shelter. Representatives have not had a chance to ask Lenexa officials what that means, and perhaps city staff can help them brainstorm ideas they have not considered.
Maybe Project 1020 can purchase a block of motel rooms, Jost said.
But at the moment, Jost said, the group’s situation is not unlike the homeless people they are desperately trying to serve. It seems like there are roadblocks everywhere.
“We understand where the noes are,” Jost said, “but we don’t feel like we have people helping us find where the yeses are.”
Mike Sherry is senior reporter for Kansas City PBS. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 816.398.4205.