City of Lawrence plans to create temporary, city-run campsite behind Johnny’s Tavern for those experiencing homelessness

photo by: Rochelle Valverde/Journal-World

Existing campsites on a city-owned parcel of land, located between the Johnny's Tavern back parking lot and the levee trail, are pictured on Sept. 2, 2022.

Updated at 5:13 p.m. Friday

Two years since the City of Lawrence decided to allow camping on public property in the downtown area, the city is planning to create a temporary city-run campsite for those experiencing homelessness and relocate people to that area.

The Lawrence City Commission will receive information about the plan as part of its meeting Tuesday. City staff will run the campsite — which staff recommends be located on city-owned property behind Johnny’s Tavern on North 2nd Street — and social supports will be provided. City staff say the campsite will provide a temporary solution to the increase in people camping while more permanent solutions, including additional shelter options, are sought.

The city estimates there are about 150 people known to be camping in various locations around Lawrence; however, some don’t adhere to the city ordinance requiring campsites to be on downtown public property. That can lead to the city posting notices on campsites informing people that they need to relocate within a certain timeframe, and staff say a city campsite provides a better alternative.

“The temporary camping area is authorized under (the city’s camping ordinance) and will provide those camping in the community a place that they can go to and know that they will not be posted or asked to leave for the act of camping,” Community Development Manager Danelle Walters states in a city memo. “As this proposal is temporary in nature, City staff would continue to seek out more permanent sheltering solutions.”

The Lawrence City Commission voted in July 2020 to add an exemption to the city ordinance that previously made it illegal to camp on public right-of-way. The exemption, aimed at decriminalizing homelessness, allowed people to camp on any public right-of-way or public property downtown when there is no available space at the overnight homeless shelters. City legal staff noted at that time that the change was consistent with recent federal court rulings concerning no-camping ordinances. Concerns about the city’s no-camping ordinance came to the commission after a group of residents and some people experiencing homelessness spoke out against the no-camping ordinance, saying that it gave the city cause to police, ticket and clear the campsites of people who have no other choice but to sleep outside because local overnight shelters are at capacity.

A City of Lawrence map shows the three areas that comprise the downtown commercial district, the district where the no-camping exemption applies when overnight shelters that serve people experiencing homelessness are full.

A memo from Homeless Programs Coordinator Jenn Wolsey states that camping has been a regular occurrence due to the increased number of those experiencing homelessness in relation to the available shelter beds in the community. As the Journal-World has reported, the Lawrence Community Shelter reduced the number of beds it provides from 125 to 65 in August 2019, initially due to budget issues, and has continued to operate at a lower capacity due to staffing issues as well its recent “housing first” approach that focus on quickly housing people. The shelter’s website states it is currently serving up to 50 individuals and two families. Wolsey states in the memo that the shelter is working towards increasing its capacity to 70 beds; however, she said there will still be additional need in the community.

“Even with the LCS increase the need is still much greater than available shelter beds, which is causing a large gap in available services,” Wolsey states. “Homelessness is a community issue and will take the community working together to move towards solutions, and the solution of providing camping space in conjunction with case management and outreach is a nationwide best practice.”

Wolsey also notes though other more specialized local sheltering options exist for certain groups, there are certain eligibility requirements, and typically the single adult camper will not be eligible for those programs. Other shelter programs in Lawrence include those for families or for victims of domestic violence.

The city owns several parcels in the area behind Johnny’s, all of which are in the downtown commercial district and therefore would not violate the city’s ordinance regarding camping. Wolsey states there are currently 12-15 people camping in that area, and that in order to set up the city campsite, city staff and social service partners will work with those currently camping to assist with the organization and appearance of the area. She said this will allow for additional space and more room for additional people to transition to the area. The city memo did not specify the exact location of the proposed camp, but the majority of the campers currently are in between a gravel parking lot that serves Johnny’s and the Kansas River levee.

Staff with the city’s Housing Initiatives Division and Parks and Recreation Department will partner to set-up the campsite, a process estimated to take about 30 days, according to the memo. Wolsey states that timeframe will allow time for staff to assist people currently camping on the site with cleaning the area and to set up the space to allow for additional tents and campers. Elements of relocating people camping elsewhere in the city and operating the campsite are as follows:

•Unhoused individuals who are currently camping in unauthorized and/or highly visible parts of the city will be instructed to relocate to this approved area. HID and Parks and Recreation will assist individuals in relocating their camps to this approved area and will provide tents to those individuals who do not have one.

• There will be a reservation process and there will be expectations set for those utilizing the area.

• There will be provided dumpsters and portable restrooms for the area in an attempt to assist in maintaining a hazard-free space.

• There will be staff assistance with reservation check-ins and a staff initiative to ensure a maintained and clean area as possible.

• There will be an expectation that if a camper refuses to move to (the city campsite behind Johnny’s), they will be subject to a notice to vacate or a trespass citation.

Wolsey emphasizes that the campsite will be set up and operated as a temporary solution as staff continue to seek out and develop more long-term sheltering and housing options. She said staff are exploring opportunities for longer-term strategies for spring 2023 and beyond, including additional shelter options, a longer-term campsite located outside the downtown area, as well as the city’s continued work on affordable housing and outside efforts to develop more supportive housing.

In the short-term, the Winter Emergency Shelter — the temporary overnight cold-weather shelter that the city and/or volunteers have operated since the Lawrence Community Shelter reduced its capacity — is scheduled to open on Dec. 1 and is anticipated to provide 75 additional shelter beds. The winter shelter will be open until March 1, or longer if deemed necessary. The city will “down-size” the campsite behind Johnny’s as people enter the winter shelter.

Walters’ memo states there will likely be a cost to operate the campsite, but the amount is unknown at this time, and city staff proposes it come from remaining dollars in the Housing Initiative Division that are set aside in the budget for housing and homeless initiatives projects.

The campsite behind Johnny’s will not be the first the city has run. The city hosted a temporary campsite two years ago at Woody Park, which is located behind the LMH Health hospital in the Pinkney neighborhood.

Ted Boyle, president of the North Lawrence Improvement Association, said the neighborhood association is “avidly against” the city’s plan to operate a campsite in North Lawrence. He said that with the camping that has already been going on, there are concerns with trash, vandalism, theft and safety. He asked why both the city-run campsites have been in the city’s core neighborhoods, and not, for instance, on city-owned parkland behind the new police station in west Lawrence.

“It’s a disgrace to Lawrence, and you’re pushing that off on the core neighborhoods,” Boyle said.

In other business, the commission will consider a special use permit for the development of an electrical substation on approximately 9.98 acres in the southeast corner of the intersection of Kasold Drive and Bob Billings Parkway. As the Journal-World previously reported, the electric provider Evergy has proposed locating a substation in that area.

The Lawrence City Commission will convene at 5:45 p.m. Tuesday at City Hall, 6 E. Sixth St.


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