Published August 11th, 2020 at 6:00 AM
As the old adage goes, it takes a village.
Usually, this refers to raising children. In this case, it takes a village to keep people sheltered and safe from the coronavirus.
As COVID-19 swept through the U.S., it hit vulnerable populations hardest, one of which is the homeless community, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Worse yet, as more people become homeless, shelters are struggling to house folks. Take Lawrence, Kansas, for instance.
Lawrence saw a 35% increase in their homeless population from 2018 to 2019, according to a tracking survey. The shelter in Lawrence has had its own struggles, at one time seeing their bed count cut by half due to financial pressure. Compound that with the risk of a highly infectious virus and growing numbers of people displaced or unsheltered.
“Right now, we have to move people off site when they need to be quarantined if they are awaiting test results or have been exposed to the virus,” said Renee Kuhl, executive director at the Lawrence Community Shelter. “This is really difficult because the people we work with are typically managing difficult behavioral health issues or other disabilities and they need a lot of support.”
Last winter, Kuhl was able to successfully raise money and secure city support to increase the shelter’s bed count from 65 to 105. Today, to curb the increased risk of infection, the shelter is working with a local architect and his students at the University of Kansas to build Monarch Village. This could help people shelter in place to reduce community spread of the virus and, if needed, to quarantine in a private house.
The shelter supports people such as Shauna Rodgers, a Topeka native who has a mental illness and a run-in with the law. When she arrived at the shelter last April, she felt hopeless. The judge said she was “not functional enough” to be placed in a halfway house.
Rodgers remembers that day clearly. It was cold outside. Law enforcement officials dropped her off at the Lawrence Community Center where she’d serve a six-month house arrest sentence.
“No tent. No bus passes. Just goodbye,” she said.
Rodgers explained that she’d done a few things she wasn’t proud of, but wouldn’t go into specifics. However, she said, she wasn’t herself. She needed help with her mental illness. Unable to talk about her mental health issues, she went unmedicated for a manic depressive diagnosis.
Life was a maze she couldn’t escape. One thing led to another, and she landed in prison.
“It does not take much to become homeless,” she said. “One poor choice and everything, that domino effect, from thereon (changed).”
Unlike her experiences in homeless shelters in Topeka, however, Lawrence’s shelter did more than provide housing. It gave her access to treatment and therapy for her mental illness and a safe space to grow. Rodgers said in the past several months, the Lawrence Community Shelter gave her hope and so much more.
“Without you, Kenny, Sheryl,” she told Kuhl, naming the staff at the shelter: “… there would not be me where I’m at. You’ve brought hope.”
In an effort to rehabilitate communities, Lawrence Community Shelter offers programs in addition to temporary housing. The goal is to equip people with skills, a support network and improve mental and physical well-being so that they can be independent.
Today, the shelter is trying to do for the community in Lawrence what they did for Rodgers. But they can’t do it without building safe spaces that allow their guests to quarantine.
A study highlighted the impact COVID-19 could have on people who are homeless back in March. The study found that the pandemic would make the homeless population in the U.S. “twice as likely to be hospitalized, two to four times as likely to require critical care, and two to three times as likely to die as the general population.”
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development kicked into high gear, laying out programs, pushing out interim guides, notices, even offering grants to help people who are considered unsheltered.
Enter the Monarch Village, a community of 12 tiny homes, which they dub a “safe haven,” on the south and east sides of the shelter’s community garden. In line with its name, they will create a monarch butterfly trail with walkways leading to an outdoor picnic, common area.
To mitigate issues that stem from shared living spaces, Dan Rockhill, an architecture professor at the University of Kansas and leader of the non-profit Studio 804, stepped up.
Rockhill dug into his own pockets to front part of the cost for a development plan of a tiny house village. Such villages have become a popular, lower-cost solution for addressing affordable housing. One case in point is Kansas City’s group of tiny homes for veterans led by Veteran’s Community Project.
To Rockhill, tiny homes give people who are homeless or at risk of homelessness some dignity.
“These are unique times,” Rockhill said. “I’d like to do more than weather (the pandemic) at home.”
Typically, a Studio 804 project is like a boot camp for graduate students in their final year in the architecture department. With Rockhill’s guidance, they plan and build functional spaces in Lawrence.
They would usually be part of the planning and development process, Rockhill said, but not this year. This is an urgent project so he sketched out and has already submitted the plans to the city to obtain the special permit needed to begin building a shared living space. He expects final approval to go before the city in mid-August.
The goal, Kuhl and Rockhill said, is to have the Monarch Village open no later than spring. Each home is to be 160 square feet with a shower, toilet and a kitchenette. This will not only house guests in need but also help them adhere to safety protocols such as isolating to curb viral spread.
As it stands today, guests share living spaces in the dorms. No privacy. No way to quarantine. And the risk of infection is high.
But if all goes as planned, the tiny homes will offer private sleeping quarters for couples or families. Right now, Kuhl says LCS stopped sheltering families because of the congregate nature of their facilities. The good news, she said, is that none of their guests have tested COVID-19 positive. And they’d like to keep it that way.
All they need now is to raise the rest of the money, estimated to be $500,000. Rockhill’s Studio 804 has contributed about half the cost of the project in the form of material and labor costs but the remaining will fund infrastructure costs such as security cameras and solar panels.
Now, it’s just a waiting game.
“I’m anxious to get this underway,” Rockhill said. “And demonstrate we can do a lot of good.”