During a town hall meeting on homelessness Tuesday, a man apparently under the influence of alcohol took a seat and proceeded to disrupt the program, his voice rising over that of the speaker.
"As much as I sympathize with the drunks, this is a public forum," participant Hubbard Collinsworth said, responding to some concern that the man was not treated fairly when escorted from the room. "I understand their problems ... but we are trying to get the community's involvement and do not need excessive interruptions."
The incident underscored the challenges the community faces as it tries to address homelessness. From the homeless people visible on the streets to families and children whose struggles are often hidden from public view, the challenges they face are varied and great, advocates say.
"It's a really complicated situation, particularly when we get to dealing with the causes of chronic homelessness - alcoholism, addiction, mental illness," said Loring Henderson, executive director of the Lawrence Community Shelter, 214 W. 10th St.
Tuesday's fourth annual town hall meeting was convened by the Coalition on Homeless Concerns. It focused on employment, transportation and the efforts of the city's Community Commission on Homelessness.
"We're making baby steps," said Collinsworth, an advocate of the Coalition on Homeless Concerns who also was once homeless. "But we're better now than we were three years ago. Through grass-roots efforts, through other organizations' efforts, we're making progress."
The homeless commission in June gave city officials its recommendations for how to serve the nearly 400 people who are homeless in Lawrence. That vision covers an emergency shelter and other types of housing, including temporary emergency, transitional, and permanent supportive housing.
"It's a changing document," said Shirley Martin-Smith, chairwoman of the homeless commission.
The Lawrence Community Shelter made a proposal before the homeless commission and was identified as the entity that fits in with the commission's vision for an emergency shelter.
And the commission is having discussions with other agencies, Martin-Smith said.
"We're asking people to tell us how they want to fit into the housing vision," she said.
The homeless commission will report back to the City Commission in the spring.
"It will help them understand where the gaps are," Martin-Smith said. "It can help the city support organizations who want to apply for a grant at the state or federal level."
And the city will get a better picture of the services offered in the community and those that are needed, Martin-Smith said.
Meanwhile, there is progress, Henderson said.
He said many people, including members of the commission and the public, have learned about homelessness.
"I think it's been an education for the general community - for them to hear how complicated an issue homelessness is, that these are not just people who don't want to work," Henderson said.
A 2007 survey of the city's homeless found that of the 373 people counted, 192 were in homeless families with children. Henderson said those findings changed people's minds about the issue.
"Now when we think 'homeless,' we think much more of the whole picture and we see it with its nuances," he said, "and that is real progress."