City has no immediate plans to reestablish its campsite for homeless people; other plans in the works for winter

photo by: Earl Richardson/Douglas County

An aerial photo of a campsite for homeless people at Woody Park in northern Lawrence shows the site's 20 heated tents and a community tent.

Though the City of Lawrence currently has no plans to reestablish a sanctioned campsite for those experiencing homelessness, the portable trailers purchased for that purpose last year could still be reused.

The city received $374,000 to establish the campsite from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, or CARES, which was part of $24.9 million in CARES funding that Douglas County distributed last summer as part of the first federal pandemic relief package. The temporary campsite operated for about five months at Woody Park in northern Lawrence, was staffed 24/7, and included 20 tents with space heaters and three portable trailers that provided bathrooms, showers and laundry facilities.

The trailers accounted for about half the cost of the project, or about $190,000 of the $374,000, with the other main cost being staffing to supervise the campsite. Those who stayed at the site had to agree to a code of conduct, which included behavioral rules and prohibitions on weapons, drugs and alcohol. Though the CARES funding could only cover staffing costs for a limited time period, city and county leaders said the trailers would be permanent assets that could potentially be used for future campsites if additional funding or an ongoing partner were identified, as the Journal-World previously reported.

It’s estimated there are more than 200 people currently living outside, many camping in parks and other wooded areas around the city. However, it’s not anticipated that the trailers will be used in the immediate future to support another sanctioned campsite.

Lawrence Parks and Recreation Director Derek Rogers, who helped lead the Woody Park campsite, said the city does not currently have a plan to use the trailers this summer, fall or winter, and is instead working on coordinating with partners to provide overnight shelter in churches for the winter.

Rogers said two barriers for reestablishing a sanctioned campsite were finding a suitable location and paying for staffing expenses. In addition to help from Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center staff and a full-time Parks and Rec staff member, Rogers said the city used the CARES funding to pay two part-time employees about $28,800 per month so that the site was monitored 24/7.

“A managed, sanctioned campsite like Camp Woody worked very well in that location; however, that level of support is very expensive,” Rogers said.

If the city were to identify another location for a campsite, Rogers said that a less expensive alternative was having a less restrictive campsite that is unmanaged or managed by an outside organization. Rogers said in comparison to a campsite that is monitored 24/7 and has specific guidelines, an unmanaged, less restrictive campsite is relatively inexpensive to start but would likely result in more negative interactions with nearby residents and the public.

photo by: City of Lawrence

A portable trailer that provides restrooms and showers is pictured when at place at Woody Park, 201 Maine St.

When it comes to identifying another location for the campsite, Rogers said the potential impact on neighborhoods was a consideration, as were other practical and safety considerations. Those include finding a location that is near social and other services, has access to utilities and is not in a floodplain or floodway, which, for instance, rules out some city-owned land near the Kansas River. He said while the city has narrowed down some potential areas, they still need to be further vetted, and the city is not actively pursuing that right now.

Instead, Rogers said the city was currently focusing on identifying indoor sheltering locations for the upcoming winter. He said even when using heaters in the tents last winter, wind and extreme cold made it difficult to keep the tents warm, and better shelter could be provided using indoor spaces such as churches.

“I think we can do a better level of sheltering,” Rogers said. “If we put too much effort into a sanctioned campsite going into the winter, we could have more people in tents outdoors rather than a warmer environment on those really cold nights.”

In the meantime, Rogers said Parks and Rec has added some portable toilets in the downtown area and that the recreation centers are open to those experiencing homelessness to use the bathroom, shower or get out of the heat.

Sheltering those living outdoors during the winter has been an issue in recent years after the city’s main homeless shelter reduced its capacity. The Lawrence Community Shelter has the capacity to serve 125 people most of the time and 140 people during the winter. The shelter initially reduced its capacity to 65 people in August 2019 amid budget issues and changes to its staffing model following an outside review commissioned by the city and county, then further reduced the number of people housed at its building in eastern Lawrence to a maximum of 40 people amid the coronavirus pandemic while serving others in hotels. Shelter leaders announced plans earlier this year to increase capacity, but after an increase in COVID cases due to the more contagious Delta variant, they said last week the capacity would remain at 40 people so that the shelter has room to quarantine and isolate people who are exposed to the virus or test positive.

As far as the trailers go, Rogers said the city saw them as a community asset that could be used at other campsites as well as in other situations, such as at events or to provide services to neighborhoods affected by a tornado or other emergency situation. As another example, Bert Nash, which was one of the partners in the Woody Park campsite, is seeking a grant for mobile units to help shelter some of the people living outdoors, and Rogers said the trailers could possibly help support that project if it ended up moving forward.

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