City lacks adequate shelter for homeless, and ‘camping’ is illegal

At the Jan. 20 Lawrence City Commission meeting, Mayor Mike Dever proclaimed January “Everybody Counts Month” in honor of Wednesday’s statewide count aimed at identifying the number of homeless in the area.

Dever said, in part, that the city is “committed to ensuring that all Kansans have access to appropriate, safe, decent, accessible and affordable housing of their choice.”

Minutes before the mayor’s proclamation — six blocks south of City Hall — a staff worker at Lawrence Community Shelter, 214 W. 10th St., posted names of winners of a randomly drawn lottery.

The prize? A guaranteed meal and spot on the floor of the shelter, which has served Lawrence’s homeless population since 2004. On any given night, there are not nearly enough shelter spaces for the homeless. And there haven’t been for years.

“It’s a very serious situation, and it just keeps going on and on,” said Katherine Dinsdale, co-chair of the Community Commission on Homelessness.

Loring Henderson, executive director of Lawrence Community Shelter, said his agency has no choice but to implement a lottery system. The shelter, with a 31-person capacity, cannot accommodate the 45 to 50 homeless people who seek shelter nightly.

“It’s been going on ever since we opened,” Henderson said.

Another shelter

A few blocks away, at the city’s other shelter, Salvation Army officials won’t turn anyone away when the temperature is below freezing, according to Wes Dalberg, executive director. Ten or so people sleep on mats, while others occupy the shelter’s 42 beds.

The shelter, 946 N.H., has a zero-tolerance policy toward alcohol and drugs. Proof of sobriety is required for entrance.

Dalberg said the shelter sticks to its 42-bed capacity in warmer weather.

“No one really knows what happens to those people (who are turned away),” he said.

A 23-year-old woman named Tasha, who declined to give her last name, said she has stayed at the area shelters on and off for a couple of years. She said the Lawrence Community Shelter actually does not turn people away when the temperature is below freezing. During those times, Tasha said, the crowd in the shelter reminds her of sardines in a can.

In warmer weather, when not selected in the lottery, Tasha has resorted to camping.

“There’s not much else you can do,” she said.

Gerald Zephier, who has been staying at the Lawrence Community Shelter for several years, said he also camps if turned away at the shelters. He said police have ticketed him twice for violating the city’s ban on camping on public property.

Homeless camping

Last October, the city bulldozed a large homeless camp near the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Depot station east of downtown. A week earlier, two men died near the site from drug overdoses.

With not enough room at shelters, the ordinance essentially makes homelessness illegal, said David Tucker, a homeless outreach worker at Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center.

“They are camping, which makes them illegal,” Tucker said.

Lawrence City Prosecutor Jerry Little said his office prosecuted 57 illegal camping cases in 2008, with penalties ranging from fines and community service to jail time.

Tucker had worked with some of the homeless at the site that was bulldozed in October. But Tucker has been unable to find some who normally stayed there.

“If you can’t find them, you’re never going to get them reintegrated,” Tucker said.

The mayor doesn’t think legalizing camping in the city is an answer to homelessness.

“I don’t think it’s safe for citizens who are homeless to sleep outdoors,” Dever said. “I don’t think camping is necessarily a good solution.”

The city asked the Community Commission on Homelessness to study the camping ordinance. Dinsdale said the homeless commission didn’t support allowing camping.

The future

Dever said services should be aimed at moving homeless people into permanent housing.

That’s already happening within the social service community, including grant applications for additional housing through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the recent startup of a local Family Promise program, a church-based initiative that works with homeless families.

Henderson said the Lawrence Community Shelter hopes to move to a larger location by spring 2010.

In the meantime, officials say there are no immediate plans to address overcrowding at shelters.

“I’m sorry that we’re not able to meet their needs,” Dever said. “It saddens me that we don’t have more space.”

Dever said the issue was important, but he’s heard little concern about it from the community.

“Nobody has come to me and said, ‘Mike, please do something,'” he said.