With at least 280 people experiencing homelessness living outside, community leaders prepare for more action

photo by: Rochelle Valverde

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

With at least 280 people estimated to be living outside in Lawrence, city and county leaders are preparing for a deeper discussion about the resources and coordination needed to address the issue of homelessness.

As part of its study session Tuesday, the Lawrence City Commission received an approximately three-hour presentation on the various services supporting people experiencing homelessness as well as efforts being made by Douglas County leaders. Speaking to the frustration that has been voiced by some in the community about an inadequate response, Mayor Brad Finkeldei said that he hoped the community would soon be making progress.

“When people call and say, ‘Why isn’t the city doing something; why isn’t the county doing something?'” Finkeldei said. “These are issues we are trying to tackle and trying to do better on, but there are a lot of complex issues and a lot of people working on it.”

However, with substantial funding to address homelessness expected as part of recent federal coronavirus aid packages, Finkeldei said the community was in a unique position to address what is clearly a demonstrated need. As the city prepares for additional conversations with the county, partner agencies and the public, he said those leading the effort needed to ensure that funding was used to make a significant and important difference in the community.

As part of the meeting, the commission heard from representatives from various agencies that work to address homelessness and looked ahead to a future discussion about the additional services, resources, policy decisions and coordination that the city expects will be needed.

Mathew Faulk, housing director at Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center, said the center estimates there are at least 280 people living on the street right now, not counting those staying at the local shelter. Faulk said all the local agencies are working as hard as they can, but more resources are needed to provide the case management, housing and other supports that are needed to address the problem, which has been exacerbated by the pandemic.

“After COVID, we have a much wider need,” Faulk said. “What I think, in my own estimation, happened is that the community and nation, we had problems that were under the surface that were not being addressed adequately, and COVID has exacerbated that to an extent and now they’re very obvious.”

The commission requested the study session after some residents called for the community to take immediate action to help house the unsheltered people of Lawrence and others expressed concerns about the number of people camping in parks and other public areas throughout the city. Tuesday’s presentation included information about the agencies and systems serving people experiencing homelessness; impacts within the city’s park system; impacts in the downtown area; and reports from city departments on their interactions with the public related to these issues.

Some residents experiencing homelessness also addressed the commission, asking the community to do more. Pushing back against another comment made by a member of the public, Bradley Krebs said that nobody wants to be homeless.

“Give us a home, give us a job and we’ll take it from there,” Krebs said. “It’s as simple as that. What’s taking so long?”

The commission was scheduled to discuss additional resources needed, potential policy decisions and potential coordination with Douglas County, but due to the late hour, Assistant City Manager Brandon McGuire said the topic would come back to the commission for further discussion at an upcoming meeting.


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