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Follow City Commission debate on homeless camps
The Lawrence City Commission tonight will consider a proposal to allow the homeless to establish camps in a city park.
The City Commission meeting starts at 6:35 p.m.
Check back after 6:30 to find out how the debate is proceeding.
6:30 p.m. Hi. This is Journal-World reporter Chad Lawhorn. I'll be providing you a live update of the debate surrounding a proposal to build a camp for the homeless either in Burcham Park or in an area in East Lawrence near the old Santa Fe Depot.
There are a couple of items on the agenda before the homeless campsite issue. Check back about 6:45 to see if the debate has begun.
6:45 We still have three items on the regular agenda to discuss before the homeless camping issue comes up. Check back about 7:15.
7:15 We're now just one item away. Commissioners perhaps will begin their discussion in about 5 minutes.
7:32: Commissioners have begun their discussion. Margene Swarts, the city's assistant director of development services, points commissioners to a staff memo and other documents that were included in the city commission's packet.
David Tucker, a homeless outreach specialist for Bert Nash, has proposed this plan. He tells the commission "we have a very real issue in Lawrence that is worsening by the day. Homelessness is on the rise and our shelters don't have enough space to put them. Every night people are turned away and struggle to find a legal place to sleep. I'm a firm believer that having a place to sleep at night can really turn a person's life around."
He goes on. "I do agree that this is not the ideal situation. But it is an idea. I have heard very few other ideas from people. Homelessness is an issue that is going to require compassion and a lot of patience."
Public comment begins. Brad Cook. He's a licensed social worker who is based at the Lawrence Community Shelter. Points to a USA Today article that shows this is a national issue. "This is about social justice."
Said the campsite would not be the best issue. It should only be a temporary issue. Would need wording to say it would end by a certain date. "It can't be a permanent solution." To those who say "you build it and they will come, I say they are already here. What are you going to do about it?" He urges other people to come up with other ideas that are better than the campsite proposal.
7:40 Matthew Faulk, another social worker who works with the homeless. He tells commissioners that the issue of poverty is a broad societal issue. "No one is there absolutely because of their own doing," Faulk said of people who are homeless. He said that the city's camping ordinance, which prohibits camping in many public places, is unfair to the poor. "Instead of a policy that tries to alleviate poverty, I think that is a policy that really punishes the poor." He continues. "No one has a fast, easy solution. This is one of the few solutions being proposed." He continues. "I agree that this is not a long term solution or an ideal solution. If you go on to Lawrence Journal-World and read any article about homelessness, and then read the reader blogs, there is a lot of hate speech there. There is a lot of that attitude in our society." He continues that Lawrence could put itself on the map by trying something really unique and ambitious to alleviate poverty. "I know that we all think Lawrence is very unique and special, and this is an opportunity to further that image." He continues "There are people going through hardships that we can't imagine. None of us really know what it is like to freeze to death."
7:46 Angela Jennings. Would like to come up with a proposal that is a little more respectable than people just "flopping out by the river" Said perhaps a recreational campground for the community would work. Campsite wouldn't just be for homeless people.
7:50 Michael Tanner. Tanner helped build the illegal campsite that was located near the Santa Fe Depot in East Lawrence. He said he does not think a campsite should be temporary. Points to Portland. He said he is building a structure right now. He said he is building a trailer that will have a tag from the state. Said he was working on it last night. He said a couple of police officers came to visit him. He said he was asked to leave the site, and eventually moved from the site, which he said was on Union Pacific railroad property. Moved the structure to the parking lot near the DMV office. He said he was under the impression that the parking lot was public property. Said when he returned to the lot, a crew was preparing to tow his trailer — which he bought for $650 — and his Chevy Suburban. Said that the trailer wasn't towed because he had chained a large log to the trailer. "You can't just cut my chain with bolt cutters. You need hydrolouic bolt cutters to cut my chain." He said the officer ultimately gave him 30 minutes to remove his property from the lot, or else he'll be arrested for criminal trespass. Also was told if he came back he would be arrested for criminal trespass.
Tanner continues. He thinks the police have treated him unfairly. He tells a story about getting a parking ticket on the top floor of the city parking garage. He had been living in his van in that park. "If we had this campsite it wouldn't even be happening to me," he said. "We really need this in this city."
At this point, Mayor Chestnut asks Tanner to focus his comments on the specific proposal. Said would need to follow up on his accusations against the police department, if Tanner chooses to pursue those allegations.
8:04 Tanner continues. He alleges that he is being harassed by the Lawrence Police Department. Chestnut has asked Tanner to focus on the campsite proposal. "You have issues you need to address, but this is not the forum for it," Chestnut said.
Tanner said he supports Tucker's proposal.
8:06 Ted Boyle, president of North Lawrence Improvement Association. He said his group has discussed the proposal and believes "it is a tremendous liability" to the city. Said the city does have to distinguish between two types of people -- people who are temporarily down on their luck because of the economy and the "professional transients" who have chosen to live outside. He said he believe the campsite will attract more of those. "The North Lawrence Improvement Association and the residents of North Lawrence believe this campsite proposal is a bad idea."
8:09 Young homeless woman, who I did not get the name of. She said she is interested in finding a safe place to sleep, not surrounded by men. She said there are times she can't get into the shelter. She said she would like an option .
8:10 Hilda Enoch, longtime advocate for homeless services. "You have been elected to find solutions that do not criminalize the most vulnerable among us." She continues. "They can't simply be harassed and punished for the condition they are in."
8:11 Steve Braswell, president of Pinckney Neighborhood Association. Said that Lawrence Association of Neighborhoods does not support camping in Lawrence city parks. "If we had prosperous people with their RVs and expensive bass boats, I don't think that would be an appropriate use for our parks either." Said the neighborhood association is in favor of enhancing the Lawrence Community Shelter. "I think what we should do is the appropriate thing. This would be like putting a Band-Aid on a broken leg. He continues "We have to get on board and figure out how to get the Community Shelter improved because this is not the right way to deal with this. I don't think there is going to be much community support for this." He continues. He said if he saw homeless people camping in the park "it would make me feel really sad that we can't do any better than this."
8:16 A Pinckney Neighborhood residents who I did not get the name of: She said she doesn't want the city to be judgemental of the homeless. Points out camping already is going on. Said some people don't stay in the shelters because they have a pet. Some have a drink and aren't allowed to go in some shelters.
8:18 Phil Collison, president of East Lawrence Neighborhood Association. Thinks it is a health and human safety issue. "We will watch any proposal very closely to make sure those safety issues are addressed."
8:20 Janette Parker. Urges Commission to treat homeless people as humans. Points to United Nations statements on the rights of people to camp.
8:23 Loring Henderson, executive director of the Lawrence Community Shelter. Said he supports the camp because he doesn't see another good option at the moment. "It is just based on practicality. There just isn't a place for people to go to sleep — and they have to sleep — when the shelter is full. I just think for the present time this a reasonable proposal for the situation we're in." He said that people are camping "up and down" the Kansas River today. He said this proposal would provide more order to what is going on today.
8:30 Commissioner Mike Dever said he is concerned about devoting resources to a temporary program. He wants to focus on finding a permanent home for the Lawrence Community Shelter. Also is not convinced that the homeless camp would be a good temporary solution. "I haven't seen real good outcomes in other cities," Dever said. "I see them shutting down more than I see them popping up. I feel like we would be taking a step backwards."
8:32: Commissioner Aron Cromwell. Says homelessness is "an enormous concern" He is concerned that limited resources would be directed toward a temporary solution. He said he feels an "enormous sense of urgency" to improve the shelter situation in Lawrence. He said he has lots of concerns about the costs of the program. "When we get into this, the costs will really grow and grow.'
8:34 Commissioner Lance Johnson. Echos many of the concerns already raised. Thanks Tucker for putting forward a plan. He does not think it would be a safe situation for people camping there.
8:38 Commissioner Mike Amyx. Wants to find a solution for permanent housing. But if we can't find that solution, we're going to have to consider proposal like the one brought forward tonight.
8:38 Mayor Chestnut. "There are times when there really are no good answers," he said. Agrees that he want to keep the efforts on finding solutions for the shelter. Also wants to focus on providing services to help people redirect their lives. He is concerned about redirecting efforts and losing momentum. He is concerned that having a site will cause the city's homeless numbers to grow. Concerned about other social service agencies, like Health Care Access, becoming overwhelmed. He said there will always continue to be people who don't want to go into case management, and thus there will still be unregulated camp sites in town. "I think the unintended consequences with this are pretty significant." He continues. "We have to continue the dialogue. We have to continue to seek solutions." He believe it will be a major focus this year.
8:42 Action of the commission is to receive the report. Chestnut said there is no consensus on the commission to direct staff to work on the camping proposal. No vote was taken. That ends the discussion.