Efforts to find more places to house the homeless are intensifying as The Salvation Army prepares to close its 40-bed shelter on June 1.
In late April, the city confirmed that a permit has been applied for that would allow the Lawrence Community Shelter to use a former church building near 13th and Massachusetts streets as a temporary, overnight homeless shelter site.
The site, which is owned by Douglas County and is adjacent to the Douglas County Public Works offices, thus far is being well-received by neighbors, said Phil Collison, president of the East Lawrence Neighborhood Association.
“What I’m hearing is that it may not be the worst place in the world for a temporary shelter,” Collison said. “I still want to hear more from neighbors, but I’m not getting any negative feedback on it yet.”
Margene Swarts, the city’s assistant director of development services, also said the city is in the process of applying for federal stimulus dollars that would bolster a new program that attempts to place homeless individuals in vacant apartments in the city.
City commissioners are being asked to establish a campground for up to 50 homeless people in either Burcham Park or a wooded area along the Kansas River in East Lawrence.
At their Tuesday meeting, commissioners will hear a proposal for a “tent city” that is designed to give homeless people a way to legally camp inside the city limits.
“To me this is a real justice issue,” said David Tucker, who is a homeless outreach specialist for Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center, and is proposing the campsite idea. “If we don’t have enough beds at our shelters for people to sleep in and we don’t allow people to camp, we’re making it effectively illegal to be in poverty. That’s a terrible crime on our part.”
City staff members, though, are opposed to the campsite idea.
“Just control in the big sense of the word is our concern,” said Margene Swarts, city assistant director of development services. “There are sanitation issues, life, health and safety issues, security issues. We just think there are a lot of concerns.”
Tucker, whose job involves counseling homeless people on a regular basis, said he’s flexible in where the campsite should be. He’s suggested a wooded area in the northern part of Burcham Park, Third and Indiana streets. The area would be just north of Kansas University’s new boathouse for the KU rowing team.
Another possibility, he said, could be a wooded spot between the Kansas River and the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Depot at Seventh and New Jersey streets. The site had previously been the location of an illegal campsite that more than a dozen homeless people had created last year. City crews in October removed the campsite, which had grown to the point that homeless individuals had started to build wooden structures in the timber.
A representative with the East Lawrence Neighborhood Association said no one had notified him of an idea to place a camp near the train depot.
“I think there are a lot of basic health and safety issues that would need to be addressed,” said Phil Collison, president of the East Lawrence Neighborhood Association. “I think it would be tough to make it work.”
Tucker said he knows his proposal is not ideal. To keep costs down, the campsite would not include showers or running water. It would include portable toilets.
Because of the city’s tight budget, Tucker also does not expect a campsite would be overseen by city staff members or departments. Instead, he said the campground would need to be “self-regulated” by the campers. He also said the camp would be set up to be drug and alcohol free, but Tucker said that would be tough to enforce without significant police presence.
Tucker said one of the rules of the campsite would be that every resident would have to be signed up for services with a homeless case manager, and residents would have to sign a code of conduct to stay at the site.
“We’re hoping that type of structure will assist with the safety issues,” Tucker said.
City staff members, though, said their research has indicated self-regulated camps can be problematic. The city found information about five cities — Ontario, Calf.; Reno, Nev.; Seattle, Portland, Ore.; and Santa Barbara, Calif. — that have homeless camps.
Officials in Reno told Lawrence staff members that Reno had to devote about 120 staff hours per week to overseeing their city’s campsite.
“If you don’t have strict control over it, it will become a pile of filth, a crime haven, and a place where people can just hang out and not be accountable for their behaviors,” the city’s memo reports that an official in Reno said.
Officials in Ontario, Calif., also reported problems with controlling the size of the campsite. That community, outside of Los Angeles, was built to handle 140 campers, but quickly grew to more than 400 residents. Ontario leaders had to force some people to leave the site after it was determined that about 250 to 300 residents of the camp had no previous ties to Ontario.
Tucker said controlling the size of a camp in Lawrence is a legitimate concern because the city does attract a lot of people who “stop here and hang out.”
Tucker, in fact, said he understands most of the city’s concerns. He said he’s open to hearing what ideas the city has to immediately address the problem of too few shelter beds to serve the city’s homeless population.
“A camp is not the situation I really want either,” Tucker said. “But I do believe it is wrong to throw people in jail for doing nothing other than trying to go to sleep.”
City leaders, though, said they are not sure that is what is happening. Swarts said her understanding is that police officers generally ask people who are found to be illegally camping to move along. Only if they refuse are they arrested for illegal camping.
Tucker said he does believe it is rare that people are arrested under the city’s illegal camping ordinance. But he said he believes the homeless often are arrested for trespassing activities that are related to their trying to find a place to stay at night.
“I have went down to the shelter before and asked who has been arrested for trying to camp, and 40 percent of the people raise their hands,” Tucker said.
Commissioners will meet at 6:35 p.m. Tuesday at City Hall, Sixth and Massachusetts streets.