As camps in city parks and other locations increase, local leaders to discuss how to address homelessness

photo by: Rochelle Valverde

A handful of tents are seen in Watson Park on April 1, 2021.

Some of the city’s unsheltered homeless people have set up their campsites along the Kansas River, where the budding trees will soon help obscure them from view. Others, though, seem to have decided the safest place to camp is out in the open.

In Watson Park, a handful of tents are pitched among the park’s looping sidewalks. On Thursday afternoon, a jogger makes his rounds, people from the nearby neighborhood walk their dogs, and some of the tents’ occupants gather in the park’s gazebo. Among them is Roy Teal, neatly dressed and clean-shaven, who said he’s been homeless off and on for three years.

Teal said he came to Lawrence from a shelter in Topeka a couple of months ago and previously stayed at the temporary hotel shelter program run by the city. Since that program closed a month ago, he said he had been sleeping in a tent in the park or in his van.

When he was told that some of the neighbors had complained to city leaders about people who had been living in the park, he said he understood. Teal said some struggled with addiction and mental illness, and there were sometimes fights and drug use. He said what they all needed was somewhere to stay — or at least a more suitable place to camp — and help addressing those issues.

“If you want criminal activity to reduce, then get these people off the street,” Teal said. “Give them actual help.”

Teal said that some of the people who were camping, himself included, had criminal records that prevented them from getting jobs or being approved for leases or housing assistance programs. He said at one point he got a job making $14 an hour at one the plants in the city’s East Hills Business Park, but once his background check came back he was immediately fired. Teal said he had been staying away from hard drugs and that it had been years since his felonies. But when he applies for jobs and housing assistance, the answer is always the same.

“I’m a felon, but I haven’t committed a violent crime since 2008,” Teal said. “But none of the housing authorities will approve me.”

As more tents appear in city parks, near the Kansas River and in other locations in Lawrence, the issue of homelessness has increasingly become a question not just for local governments and social service agencies. A local coalition of volunteers has run a temporary shelter the past two winters; some residents have asked the community to take immediate action to house people; neighbors near Watson Park have come to city leaders to express concerns about disturbances and sanitation; and multiple neighborhood and community groups are coordinating work days to help clean up trash and debris from abandoned and active campsites along the river. Within this context, the Lawrence City Commission is preparing to hold a study session later this month with Douglas County staff and representatives of multiple social service agencies to discuss the issue of homelessness and what can be done.

Camping rules and cleanup

Though City of Lawrence park hours make it technically against the rules to camp overnight in city parks, the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and the fact that the local homeless shelter has limited its capacity to maintain social distance affects how the city responds to such campsites.

Parks and Recreation Director Derek Rogers said city staff was continuing to follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance for unsheltered homeless people during the COVID-19 pandemic. That guidance calls for generally allowing people who are living unsheltered or in encampments to remain where they are if individual housing options are not available, because clearing encampments can cause people to disperse throughout the community, break connections with service providers and potentially increase the spread of the virus.

In June 2020, the Lawrence City Commission also approved an exemption to the city ordinance that prohibits camping in the downtown commercial district when shelters are full. The Lawrence Community Shelter initially reduced its capacity in summer 2019 because of budget shortfalls, and it continues to operate at reduced levels in an effort to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. The shelter also ran an offsite program at the Econo Lodge hotel through the end of March, where it worked to find housing for those participants.

Rogers said that while parks were open for everyone to use, neither park hours nor the ordinance exemption allowed overnight camping in city parks or along the Kansas River. However, he said the CDC guidelines meant the city was being more selective with enforcement of park rules. He said if there were safety or other concerns, park staff would work with the homeless outreach team from Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center to communicate with campers and resolve concerns.

When it comes to enforcing park hours and deterring overnight camping, Rogers said the city was seeking a higher level of compliance with park hours at high-use, open space parks and parks near schools and playgrounds, as compared to more secluded or wooded parkland. He said parks in that category included Clinton Park, South Park and Watson Park, among others. At Watson Park, where the city is preparing to start mowing and turning on sprinklers in the coming days, Rogers said that Bert Nash homeless outreach workers had informed campers and that notices would be posted. He said police didn’t enforce park hours and that the city had not been issuing any citations.

Right now, the main place where people can legally camp is at the campgrounds at Clinton State Park southwest of Lawrence. Until a few days ago, the city also operated a sanctioned campground at Woody Park where camp residents worked with the Bert Nash homeless outreach team, but that camp operated with a set timeframe and closed at the end of March.

Rogers said that nine of the 33 people who stayed at the site over the duration of the program were able to find housing, and that the trailers at the campsite, which provided camp residents with showers and bathrooms, could be relocated to another location in the future.

“It offered folks that came into the camp a safer location than just camping in woods — where they were more concerned about safety, assault, robbery — and allowed them to focus on other things like housing, health or jobs.” Rogers said.

The city also coordinated with the faith group Justice Matters and the Coalition for Homeless Concerns to host a hotel-based shelter program for the winter months, which enabled those camping or otherwise unsheltered to sleep in hotel rooms during cold weather. The program sheltered more than 200 people at times, and when it closed in early March, many people were expected to return to camping or sleeping in their vehicles, as the Journal-World previously reported.

Several campsites appear to have been abandoned over the course of the winter, leaving trash and debris in the wooded areas along the Kansas River and other park areas. Meanwhile, new campsites have sprung back up now that the hotel shelter program has closed. To help address some of the trash and sanitation issues, Rogers said the city had provided portable toilets and dumpsters for some areas where people were known to be camping. He said the city was also assisting with cleanup efforts.

As the Journal-World recently reported, a group organized by North Lawrence residents spent a day picking up abandoned campsites along the river, and Rogers said other workdays were also planned. Rogers said the city provided trash bags and a roll-off dumpster for last week’s group, and the city is willing to co-sponsor other volunteer cleanups. The North Lawrence group plans to hold another cleanup on April 10, and Rogers said the Kansas Riverkeepers were planning a volunteer group cleanup on the south side of the river below the dam on April 24.

The volunteer cleanups are in addition to the work being performed by city recreation staff, which regularly cleans up parks. Last week, Rogers said that Parks and Rec staff worked a total of 83 hours cleaning abandoned campsites, cleaning around active campsites and picking up other trash in multiple areas. He said those sites included the Burcham Park trail area, south Naismith Park trail area, Robinson Park bridge area and Prairie Park Nature Area. He said any nontrash items picked up during cleanups would be stored for 30 days in case someone asked for them back.

Getting housed

Though the pandemic has resulted in the Lawrence Community Shelter operating at reduced capacity, it has also brought additional federal funding for new programs to address homelessness.

Funding from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, also known as CARES, went toward the programs at the Econo Lodge and at Woody Park, as well as other housing support programs such as rental vouchers. Additional funding from the second round of CARES aid was recently distributed to local agencies, and the most recent stimulus package, the American Rescue Plan, will also provide funding to address homelessness, though it is not yet clear what those distributions will be.

Allocations from the second round of CARES funding were distributed in March through the Emergency Solutions Grant program and were in addition to the regular ESG distributions. The CARES funding distributed to social service agencies through the ESG program totaled $915,480. About $600,000 total went to the Lawrence Community Shelter, Bert Nash, and the Lawrence-Douglas County Housing Authority for the rapid rehousing of people experiencing homelessness. Another $260,000 went to the city, the shelter and the United Way for emergency shelter and homelessness prevention.

Lawrence Community Shelter Executive Director Renee Kuhl said that the shelter received two ESG grants totaling $330,000 for rapid rehousing, as well as about $50,000 from the Affordable Housing Advisory Board. Kuhl said the shelter hadn’t had funding for rapid rehousing before, and the new money should be an important part of the shelter’s strategy to provide housing with low barriers. Under the strategy, known as “housing first,” people are housed quickly and then continue to receive social or financial support to help them stay housed.

“We’re working with people with this assistance who have really difficult barriers to housing stability, like folks with criminal backgrounds,” Kuhl said, adding that the shelter was keeping a list of “second-chance” landlords willing to accept such tenants. “This level of rapid-rehousing and housing-first intervention is new, and is a big pivot from how we’ve typically dealt with homelessness.”

Kuhl said that with the recent rapid-rehousing funding, the shelter would be able to fund supportive case management and provide $300,000 in rental assistance that she hopes will support at least 60 households for multiple months. She said that households would receive anywhere from three to 24 months of assistance, and that as participants were able to gain or increase their income, they would contribute more toward their housing costs.

The program at the Econo Lodge closed April 1, and Kuhl said in the past two weeks, the shelter was able to house 21 households that had been staying there. Others from that program were able to come to the shelter, find housing with a friend or transition to an Oxford House for addiction recovery, and a few remain at the hotel while the shelter works to set up housing. Kuhl said three participants left the program and had unknown whereabouts, and one person left to live in a vehicle.

What’s next

Following a recent City Commission meeting in which several residents asked the city to do more to address the issue of homelessness, the commission asked for the topic to be put on a future agenda.

Assistant City Manager Brandon McGuire said the commission was scheduled to have a study session on the topic on April 13. He said the meeting would go beyond just issues with camping, and several professionals working in the field would be presenting to the commission about support services for people experiencing homelessness.

“It’s more of an orientation to try to get at that question of who is doing what, who is responsible for what?” McGuire said. “We have different service providers and different scopes, focuses and missions among them. How does it all work together?”

McGuire said that as part of the study session, personnel from the Lawrence Community Shelter would discuss the housing first model, and someone from Bert Nash would discuss outreach to people experiencing homelessness and the coordinated entry system, which aims to coordinate the provision of social services. In addition, he said Douglas County staff would discuss a program called Built for Zero.

As the Journal-World previously reported, the County Commission approved an agreement in April 2020 with Community Solutions, a nonprofit organization dedicated to ending homelessness, to take part in the Built For Zero initiative. The county is leading the effort, but it includes input from the city, the shelter, Bert Nash, the Lawrence-Douglas County Housing Authority and the Kansas Statewide Homeless Coalition. The first year of the program has been focused on developing a resource to track data related to the chronically homeless population in the area.

Meanwhile, at Watson Park, some are preparing to look for another place to camp after getting notices from the city.

Over the course of Thursday afternoon, one of the tents was taken down and the area around it picked up, leaving only a slightly yellow square of grass where the tent had stood. Teal said he would have a harder time moving: Since he came to the park, his van had broken down, and attempts others made to help him fix it were unsuccessful.

“I’ve got to figure out a legal way to tow my van, so it doesn’t get taken,” Teal said. “Or else I’m going to lose everything.”

When asked what he would like to see, Teal said that while his first choice would be to have a place to live, he would at least like a more suitable place for him and others to camp and a place to take a shower.


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