For Donald “D.J.” Gibson, the message was simple.
“Everyone deserves a home,” the 7-year-old sang. “With windows and doors and ceilings and floors.”
Gibson’s enthusiastic rendition of a piece from the elementary school musical “This Old Gingerbread House” stole the show Monday as officials dedicated the Salvation Army’s new homeless shelter for families. The Johnson County Family Lodge, 420 E. Santa Fe St. in Olathe, will increase the number of people the charity can serve as well as expand their living space.
For the time being, D.J. and his mother are two people the lodge is helping.
The $2.3 million project replaces a 67-year-old former motel that was repurposed as a shelter and opened in 1995. The new one-story brick building sits on the north edge of the Salvation Army campus in downtown Olathe.
The current lodge has 41 beds but the new one will have 60, said Salvation Army Maj. Mark Martsolf. The increase will help the charity keep pace with an approximately 38 percent increase in homelessness in the county, he said.
The current lodge operates at capacity and has a constant waiting list of around 50, he said. Need usually goes up as the weather gets too cold for camping out in tents or staying in cars, he said.
“We could probably build three more of these and probably not have enough to meet the needs for them” Martsolf said.
Families staying at the current lodge will move across the parking lot into the new units after the furniture arrives, Martsolf said. Officials expect delivery of sofas, dining tables and chairs within the next couple of weeks.
The new space will allow the Salvation Army to provide its services in a “setting of dignity,” said Martsolf. “It’s a much more uplifting space.”
Besides allowing for more beds, the new units will also give families a bit more living space — like upgrading from a dorm room to a hotel suite — he said. The current lodge has 11- by 12-foot rooms with small baths. The new units are double that, with bigger bathrooms, an under-the-counter refrigerator, microwave and convection oven.
Each bedroom has four bunk beds and will get sleeper sofas. In addition, there are two sets of units at each end of the facility that have adjoining doors for use by larger families.
There’s a laundry room, but otherwise, not much common space, he said. Residents can go across the parking lot to the main building for weeknight meals or family movie nights.
“We wanted to have a less institutional feel,” than the old lodge, Martsolf said. Everyone who comes to the facility has been grateful for the smaller space at the current lodge, he said, “but this will provide a greater sense of dignity as we get them back on their feet.”
Besides a nicer brick exterior and more space, the new lodge has some other improvements over the old lodge. There’s an 8-foot wrought-iron security fence around most of the building, to which families will be given access codes. This is because some people staying there may be coming from abusive situations, Martsolf said.
The new lodge also has a central caretaker apartment. The Salvation Army will have an intern couple living there to serve as building superintendents, he said. Besides giving families a place to stay temporarily, the Salvation Army also provides a counseling program to help them find jobs and handle their finances.
D.J. and his mom may not get to experience the new center firsthand, though. They’ll be moving into their own place at the end of the month, now that his mother, Georgia, has found a new job at a Hy-Vee. That’s about the time the rest of the people in the old building will make the move across the parking lot to the new one.
The two have lived at the lodge since August, after the family ran into financial difficulties, Georgia Gibson said. She had lost her job in shipping and receiving and later her Shawnee apartment, she said. The Salvation Army has provided parenting and financial planning classes as well as tutoring for DJ, who’s in third grade.
But D.J. was enthusiastic about his starring role at the ceremony, singing a solo and coming onstage again to sing along with the benediction. D.J. spent most of the first year of his life in a hospital because he was born with his liver outside his body, said his mother. “You wouldn’t know it now,” she said, as D.J. skipped around the meeting room afterwards. “He does love to sing.”
The new lodge was to have opened in late summer or early fall of last year, Martsolf said, but there were a few delays caused by weather and paperwork. The old lodge, built in 1947and operated as the Motor Coach Inn, was opened in 1995 as the first shelter for homeless families in the county. However persistent plumbing, electrical and mold problems made it impractical to keep the building. It will be demolished and replaced with green space and a few parking spaces as part of the city’s street beautification program.