City opens temporary campsite for those experiencing homelessness, plans to create long-term site in another location
photo by: Rochelle Valverde/Journal-World
The City of Lawrence has begun to relocate people experiencing homelessness who have been camping in some city parks to a temporary city-run campsite, with plans to create a long-term site in the near future.
With the recent opening of the new campsite, which is located near North Second Street on city-owned property between the Johnny’s Tavern back parking lot and the levee trail, the city is requiring some people to move their campsites to the temporary site or other areas where the city continues to allow camping.
The temporary campground consists of 48 spaces in the area behind the levee, and the city is also allowing existing campsites to remain in the general area. The city began setting up tents on Thursday and as of Friday afternoon 20 of the camping spaces were occupied, with about 20 additional campsites located in the wooded area or open space in the vicinity. Homeless Programs Coordinator Jenn Wolsey said that unlike the temporary campsite the city created at Woody Park in the fall of 2020, the levee campsite will not be monitored 24/7 by city staff unless it’s determined to be necessary, and instead city staff and social service agencies will be on site during the day.
“I call this a support site,” said Wolsey, who is a member of the Housing Initiatives Division the city created this year.
The city has made some adjustments to the initial plan and will not require all of the people camping in unauthorized areas to relocate to the temporary campsite. Wolsey said the campsite would only remain in place until March 12, after which the city plans to open a long-term site at another location. She said the city is still in the process of identifying potential sites for the long-term camp, and there could potentially be more than one.
Relocation of camps
Since the city changed its camping rules in 2020, the city has allowed camping on public property in the downtown commercial district when there is no available space at the overnight homeless shelter, and the idea was that people who have been camping in various places around the city would be directed to the temporary site. When the City Commission initially discussed plans for the campsite on Sept. 6, some social service employees and people experiencing homelessness expressed concern about requiring all the people living outdoors to relocate to the same area.
Among them was Jennifer Adams, who has been camping in the area near the levee for close to a year. Adams said she is from the small town of La Cygne, Kansas, and lost her housing about a year and a half ago. She said she had always been a stay-at-home mom, and she and her partner lost a rental they had been living in for 10 years when he was diagnosed with emphysema and lost his job.
“They kicked us out,” Adams said. “It doesn’t take anything, really, and you’re done. Once you’re down there, people just shun you. They are not willing to offer a hand-up a lot of times.”
Adams said she came to Lawrence because there were more resources and because she has family here. She said when she first came to town and was camping in a different area she was assaulted, and now she camps with a group she is comfortable with near the levee. Another woman camping with Adams said she had a similar bad experience. Adams said her main concern with the city’s temporary camp was safety and making sure everyone wasn’t forced together.
“My main issue is trying to put that many people into this one small area, because a lot of them don’t get along with others,” said Adams, adding that sometimes it’s mental health issues and other times just personality clashes.
Wolsey said those concerns were being taken into consideration. She said the city was accounting for protection orders and other safety concerns, and was not trying to relocate all of the approximately 160 people estimated to be living outside to the temporary campsite. Instead, she said the city was providing notice to people camping in certain parks and other areas not allowed under city ordinance. She said the city is helping relocate those people and their belongings to the city campsite or to other areas where the city continues to allow camping. Specifically, she said the city continues to allow people to camp in the woods behind the Amtrak station in East Lawrence and on private property when the city can confirm they have the property owner’s permission.
Regarding the relocation process, Wolsey estimated only about 5% of people don’t comply with notices to relocate their camps, and if needed city employees were helping people move their belongings.
“My big thing is support over enforcement,” Wolsey said.
City ordinance does not allow people to camp in city parks, including those in the downtown district, though not all camps have been removed since the city changed its camping ordinance in 2020. With the temporary campsite now an option, Assistant Parks Director Mark Hecker said the city is focusing on relocating people from especially populated parks, such as Watson Park, South Park, Centennial Park and Clinton Park, where some have been camping in park shelters. Hecker said parks employees post notices on campsites giving people a specific amount of time to relocate — from 24 hours to several days depending on the size of the camp — and that most people move when asked. He said the city previously posted such notices, but the difference now is that the city has somewhere specific to direct them.
For those people who were already camping in the area near the levee, Wolsey said they have the option of moving into a city tent, relocating their own tent to the city campground area, or remaining in their current locations as long as sanitation and other procedures were followed. The city is providing dumpsters, portable restrooms and a water spout for the area, but Wolsey said unlike the campsite in Woody Park, there is no electricity and limited water access at the temporary campsite, so the city will not be using the portable laundry, bathroom and shower trailers or providing hookups for electric heaters. Wolsey said the fire department would be coming out to the site to set up fire rings, and once the city opens the Winter Emergency Shelter at the Community Building on Dec. 1, there will be room for 75 people to stay the night there.
Wolsey said the March 12 closing date for the temporary campsite has been set to coincide with the closing of the Winter Emergency Shelter, and the plan is to have the long-term campsite ready at that time.
The temporary campsite did not require any approvals from the City Commission because it is within the downtown commercial district, which allows camping under the 2020 ordinance. However, city staff has told commissioners that the plan for a longer-term campsite would come back to them for discussion. Wolsey said the city was still researching possibilities for the long-term campsite, and that it was too early to discuss potential sites as the city would first be communicating with nearby property owners and other interested parties. Wolsey did confirm when asked that one of the sites being looked into is land near the Douglas County Jail and the Lawrence Community Shelter, which are located next to one another in eastern Lawrence near Kansas Highway 10.
Assistant County Administrator Jill Jolicoeur said in an email that the county is aware of city staff efforts to explore potential sites for long-term camping. She said the county has not received any formal proposal or any information regarding how it would be operated and managed, as well as if there is support from adjacent property owners, including but not limited to the Lawrence Community Shelter. She said that Douglas County’s efforts to prevent and reduce homelessness remain focused on programming and investments that support pathways to permanent housing in partnership with community partners, including the City of Lawrence, and the Kansas Balance of State Continuum Care. If the city does end up making such a proposal, that decision would ultimately lie with the County Commission, according to county spokesperson Karrey Britt.
When the plan for the temporary site near the levee was presented on Sept. 6, members of the city’s Housing Initiatives Division also emphasized that the temporary and long-term campsites were only a component of the city’s larger efforts to address the issue of homelessness, and would be in addition to sheltering, supportive housing, affordable housing and other initiatives. Wolsey said a campsite was not a permanent solution and the idea was not to communicate that anyone deserved to have to live outside.
“I imagine this as the first steps of many to come,” Wolsey said.
For her part, Adams hopes to find an income and a landlord willing to rent to her so that her days camping will soon be over. She said with help from the outreach team with Bert Nash she was recently able to get an ID and was told she could qualify for housing assistance, but has had difficulty finding a landlord who will accept her.
“We need more landlords that will work with us,” Adams said. “I know there’s been some bad apples who ticked off a lot of the landlords and stuff because they don’t do right, but that’s not all of us. I mean, I’m not like that. I would give anything to be inside right now.”