City Commission candidates disagree on how to serve homeless in downtown Lawrence

Lawrence’s homeless shelter is no longer located in downtown Lawrence, but questions about how to deal with panhandlers and the homeless in the central business district remain.

And Lawrence City Commission candidates aren’t united in their answers.

The field of six candidates were divided Tuesday on the idea of whether a drop-in center for the homeless would be appropriate in downtown Lawrence, now that the Lawrence Community Shelter has moved its facility to a site near the Douglas County Jail in eastern Lawrence.

“I don’t think by simply ignoring them that the problem goes away,” candidate Jeremy Farmer told a crowd of about 30 business owners at a Downtown Lawrence Inc. forum on Tuesday morning. “I don’t think by moving them the problem goes away either.”

Farmer and Scott Criqui — both candidates work in the nonprofit, social service industry — said they would be open to the idea of a drop-in center in downtown.

No proposal has been brought forward for a drop-in center, which would provide the homeless basic services and a place to congregate during the day. But Downtown Lawrence Inc. board member Mike Riling said rumors are circulating downtown of such a center, prompting concern from several business owners.

Farmer said he knew he was “going against the crowd” with his answer, but said a drop-in center may be necessary in downtown because the large crowds may always make the area a popular place for panhandlers and the homeless.

“My question is: Would you rather have them on the streets in front of your business or in a facility where we have a chance to get them some help?” said Farmer, the chief executive of the Lawrence food bank Just Food.

Criqui, who is an executive with Lawrence’s Trinity In-Home Care, said any future proposal should include a “good discussion” about its location.

“But I would acknowledge there might need to be one downtown,” Criqui said.

The other four candidates in the field all expressed serious reservations about approving a drop-in center for the downtown.

“Clearly there are some needs there, but downtown is the worst place for that type of facility,” said Rob Chestnut, a chief financial officer for a Topeka publishing company.

City Commissioner Mike Amyx, a downtown barber shop owner and the lone incumbent in the race, said he wouldn’t support any proposal to locate a drop-in center downtown. Leslie Soden, the owner of a Lawrence pet care company, said she didn’t think a center was needed in downtown. Instead she would look to improve the public transportation options to the shelter’s new facility in eastern Lawrence.

Terry Riordan, a Lawrence pediatrician, said allowing a drop-in center in the downtown would go against the city’s important goal of improving the safety of the downtown area.

Commissioners also were asked about how they would attempt to reduce panhandling in the downtown area.

Four candidates — Amyx, Chestnut, Farmer and Riordan — all said increased foot patrols in downtown likely would be part of the solution. But Riordan said the public needs to be better educated to not give money to the panhandlers.

“The play will fold if there is no audience,” Riordan said. “If you continue to feed the panhandlers, they will keep coming back.”

Farmer urged Downtown Lawrence Inc. members to become strong advocates for additional police funding that could be used to create a new downtown precinct for the department.

Soden, though, said she thought the city should focus its efforts on containing the “aggressive panhandlers,” rather than using the issue as a reason to significantly increase the police department’s budget.

“We just had a mill levy increase for police needs,” Soden said. “Hopefully that won’t happen more in the future.”

Criqui said he wasn’t sure what the solution for panhandling should be, but said the city should study how larger cities are handling the issue.

The general election will be April 2, although advance voting is currently under way. Voters can choose up to three candidates to fill three at-large positions on the five-member commission.