Cold weather can be beautiful, but for homeless people, the dangers can become life threatening. Staff photo by Kiesa Kay
Special to The Gardner News
Project 1020, which has been harboring homeless people during winter months in Johnson County since 2015, has no home this winter, said founder Barb McEver.
“We’ve been looking everywhere for a place to stay,” McEver said.
Gardner has no homeless shelter, but until this year, Project 1020 provided transportation to their shelter to anyone who needed it in vans supplied by Olathe Ford.
“We have been providing shelter and meals to people with no judgement of them,” McEver said. “People we help have been so appreciative, thankful, and kind. They said they felt like they belonged to something, and somebody out there was fighting for them.”
Three area churches have opened their doors to the project in the past: Neema Community Church in Olathe, Branches Church in Olathe, and, most recently, the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church in Lenexa. Zoning concerns and limitations on church building usage have become challenges for Project 1020 in finding a home.
Last week, Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church filed a lawsuit against the city of Lenexa to allow the church to allow homeless people to be there in the cold winter months, McEver said.
“When we opened, we named the project 1020 because we expected ten people whenever the weather was 20 degrees or colder,” McEver said. “The first year, we had seven to ten people, and then it grew to 17 to 20 people. Last year, we helped 49 people every night.”
Project 1020 served more than 5500 meals last year, too. The shelter typically opened from December 1 to April 1, although the big snowstorm meant an early opening on Nov. 25 last year. The homeless people had cots where they could sleep, storage for their possessions, and dinner served every night. Volunteers brought dinners for 75 people, enough for everyone. This year, no one will eat, because there’s no place for Project 1020 to exist.
“Most people hadn’t eaten all day,” McEver said. “We have more than 150 volunteers to transport people to and from work, serve meals, and stay overnights, but we don’t have a place to be in Johnson County.”
Since the location challenges arose for Project 1020, McEver and her husband, Marc, have contacted motels in the area to help house the homeless people who call them. Dean Askeland, a co-founder of Project 1020, passed away in June. More than 150 volunteers have worked tirelessly, because they know that life circumstances can strip the homes away from anybody.
“There are so many reasons to be homeless,” McEver said. “Thirty-nine percent of the people who came to Project 1020 had jobs. We helped them get transportation to and from work. Without knowing where you’ll spend the night or put your stuff, it’s so hard to have a job or look for work.”
Project 1020, a 501c3 nonprofit organization, has partnered with Salvation Army, Catholic Charities, Restart, United Community Services, and Johnson County Mental Health to help people. Homeless families can find haven at the Salvation Army Family Lodge in Olathe, and the shelter has been full this week, with a waiting list. The Johnson County Interfaith Hospitality Network has space for families and up to four single women, but no single men.
“You can’t leave dogs out in the cold. It’s illegal. What about human beings?” McEver said. “We had one man at the shelter who had his toes amputated due to frostbite. People would come to us with their feet freezing, soaking wet. It’s wrong.”
All Project 1020 needs is a place to be, McEver said. Like the people served by the organization, Project 1020 needs a home in order to be all they can be.
“There’s no place for a single, homeless man to sleep in Johnson County,” McEver said. “We helped at least 240 different people last year. We don’t know where they’re sleeping now, but if anyone calls me, I do my best to find housing in motels. No one ought to have to sleep outside in the cold and the wind.”
Any place where they can put up their cots would do, she said. In the long run, they would like to have a permanent location. That dream nearly came true when they bought a building in Olathe, the old Masonic Lodge at 725 West Park Street. At last, Project 1020 could do laundry on site instead of lugging 400 pounds of linen to the Laundromat. People needing homes could use onsite computers to apply for jobs, get birth certificates, and find permanent housing. The staff would have offices. Alas, though, it was not to be.
They initially had permission to operate, but the city of Olathe changed its Unified Development Ordinance code. A special use permit can take months, with a first meeting to notify people within 500 feet, and a second meeting to notify people within 200 feet. They planned fire suppression and Americans with Disabilities Act compliance measures, but then they were denied the special use permit, McEver said.
“We ended up selling the building to the City of Olathe,” McEver said.
According to McEver, “Their first contract contained a clause saying I would never purchase, lease, or borrow space within the city of Olathe for the purposes of a homeless shelter, but I wouldn’t sign it. We did reach agreement on a contract for sale of the building.”
After that dream got deferred, the hunt for a home for the project began anew. Project 1020 canvassed the entire county to find a new building for their winter work. The Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist church stepped forward to help.
“They were very excited about having us in there,” McEver said. “Many churches want to do this work, because helping people is part of their mission, even part of their worship.”
Zoning concerns arose, resulting in the lawsuit. The church chose representation from Daniel P. Dalton, of Dalton and Tomich, PLC, a Michigan firm that specializes in religious land use and zoning. In the meantime, though, as their usual opening date came and went, Project 1020 had no doors to open to the homeless people of Johnson County who desperately need a place to rest their heads while they get back on their feet.
“I’m not giving up,” McEver said. “They’re fueling my fire. Last night was so windy and cold, and people have to sleep behind buildings, then get up and try to go to work the next day, with no place to sleep or shower, and no place to put their things. It is mind-boggling. If you don’t know where you will spend the night, and you don’t have a place to come back to, it is so hard.”
McEver hopes to find a building with two rest rooms that can be used through this winter, and ultimately she hopes to find a building for use every year. Project 1020 has the microwaves, cots, linens, personal supplies, vans, and volunteers necessary for success. She hopes anyone with a building for four months use will call her, at www.project1020.com or 913 219 3347.
“Having a place to come in from the freezing cold will save lives,” she said. “I won’t give up.”