By Roxie Hammill, Shawnee Mission Post

A plan to convert a La Quinta Inn and Suites in Lenexa into a shelter and service center for people experiencing homelessness moved forward Thursday, as the county commission voted to enter into a contract to buy the property near Interstate 35 and 95th Street.

Commissioners voted 5-2 in favor of a deal that allows the county to purchase the 2.6 acres of property from MAA Krupa Lenexa, LLC, for $6 million in federal coronavirus relief money. The sale will include the hotel, as well as a shuttered Denny’s restaurant nearby.

The county anticipates spending up to $500,000 to investigate any issues with the properties over a 270-day window. It also agreed to pay $350,000 in earnest money, which would be folded back into the purchase price if the sale is ultimately successful.

As the deal works towards closure, the county will also be searching for another entity to take possession at closing and run the operation. Once up and running, the shelter would be open all day every day, with support services for its residents on site.

The commission’s hearing room, which was filled mostly with supporters of the plan, erupted into applause on the final vote Thursday.

“A beacon full of blessings”

Of the nineteen attendees who spoke, many were from churches, service organizations and the Good Faith Network, an interfaith justice organization whose members have often come to commission meetings this year to speak on housing issues.

Karen Whitson, director of the ReNewed Hope Food Pantry, said hers and other service agencies will collaborate to make the shelter a success.

“This location will become a beacon full of blessings for those who come here to begin a new life,” she said.

Several members of the Good Faith Network, including Olathe pastor Tim Suttle, said the shelter is a welcome if overdue step to addressing the needs of people experiencing homelessness.

“We agree a shelter is indispensable as a resource that will stop the bleeding and very likely save lives,” he said. “But at the same time we know that just as band-aids do not cure, a shelter will not solve homelessness.”

Suttle and some others urged the commission to continue to work toward “functional zero,” a milestone that means homelessness is brief and rare within a community because of systems put in place to detect, prevent and address it.

Pat Hotze, also of Good Faith Network, said fears of shelter are often based on incorrect assumptions and biases.

“Keeping certain people out is unfortunately part of our county’s history,” she said.

Matthew Clark of Shawnee said his work as part of a homeless services team has given him a perspective on the depth of the problem. “On any day in the wealthiest county in Kansas my team has to explain to people that they will have to leave town as soon as possible if they are going to have a chance of sleeping indoors tonight.”

“It is soul crushing to have those conversations day after day for years,” he said.

Other speakers raised concerns
Some speakers had concerns about the proposed shelter. Josh Willhite of Lenexa, who lives less than a half mile from the proposed shelter, said he’s seen the “worst side” of homelessness in his work providing transportation for the Jackson County Medical Examiner’s office.

Willhite also described an incident near his home last year in which his wife and son were approached by a homeless man who asked his wife for her shoes.

“I don’t want my children and my wife to have to be subjected to this in their yard,” he said.

Frank Rebori, also of Lenexa, noted that most of the positive comments are coming from people who do not live close to the shelter. Rebori said he lives a half mile away and questioned whether the site was the best location for such a project.

One commissioner worried it was a “feel-good move”
County commissioners were generally supportive of the idea, although there were questions from some about this specific plan.

Commissioner Charlotte O’Hara said she had grave concerns about the nearness of retail businesses like Oak Park Mall and apartments.

She said a lot of people “talk the talk,” but as a woman who opened her home to two homeless children, one of whom she adopted, she has also “walked the walk.”

“We put band-aids on these issues and then we congratulate ourselves that we’ve done something. I’m not sure that’s really what we should be doing,” she said.

The shelter proposal will not be enough to scratch the surface, she said, adding that the county could have looked at other buildings it already owns, such as those near New Century Air Center in Gardner.

“I think this is a feel-good move and really not addressing what really is needed. What these people need is they need individuals to love them through what they’re going through,” she said.

Most commissioners applauded the move
Commissioner Michael Ashcraft said he liked the project but he wanted more county involvement on the timeline of the earnest money payments.

The deal requires earnest payments of $100,000 at 90 days, $100,000 at 180 days and the final $150,000 at 270 days.

Ashcraft asked for an amendment requiring the commission to review and approve at each step, however he was voted down by those who feared that would cause delays that could kill the deal.

“I hope this project is successful,” Ashcraft said. “I hope it is a tool that impacts the needs of that population.” But “at this point I’m not willing to abdicate my responsibility as an elected official to be informed.”

Ashcraft and O’Hara both voted no, although Ashcraft noted his vote was “with reservations.”

The majority of the commission lauded the move as a good result from years of study on how to deal with housing issues in the county.

Commissioner Becky Fast said housing studies and a housing subcommittee have resulted in several incremental measures that are adding up to make a difference.

Commissioner Jeff Meyers said the shelter represents progress.

“The need is here in Johnson County, there’s no doubt about it,” he said.

View the original story here.