City leaders hear multiple perspectives about plan for city-run campsite for those experiencing homelessness

Lawrence City Hall is pictured in this file photo.

Lawrence city leaders heard various perspectives about a plan to create a temporary city-run campsite for those experiencing homelessness and to relocate people to that area.

As part of its meeting Tuesday, the Lawrence City Commission received an update on the city’s strategic plan goal of “strong, welcoming neighborhoods,” which included updates on various efforts to address homelessness. Among them was the city’s plan to create a temporary campsite on a city-owned parcel of land in North Lawrence, located between the Johnny’s Tavern back parking lot and the levee trail, as well as future plans for a longer-term campsite.

The commission heard from various people, including people experiencing homelessness, people who have worked with those populations, and North Lawrence residents both for and against the campsite. Of those experiencing homelessness, some supported the concept, but said if people are going to be required to move to a city-run campsite, there needs to be more than one option for safety concerns. Some who worked with those populations also said more than one campsite was needed and emphasized that widespread support was needed to actually address the issue.

One woman, who said she’d been homeless for a year and half, said she currently lives behind Johnny’s, where she helps run the camp and ensure that those who stay there are there to support one another and get along with others. She said there are a lot of things that can be done to help, but putting everyone in one encampment would not be safe.

“Putting us all, all the homeless into one encampment, that spells trouble in capital letters,” she said. “Because a lot of them out there are the scary people you’re talking about. And you put those with ones who aren’t, and people get hurt.”

Another man said that in February he will have been homeless for four years. He said while he’s gotten assistance to get his birth certificate, he still doesn’t have a phone and it’s hard to make contacts.

“Homelessness isn’t just being homeless,” he said. “You’re without a phone, you’re without a wallet. People have taken all those things. I don’t have anything to really call my own. It’s all been taken. My pictures of my babies are gone — all the things that matter to me are history. They’ve been stolen, ripped off, ripped up, plowed under.”

The man said the city has required him to move his campsite twice, and he had to move it two additional times because of flooding. He said he was 62 and tired of moving, and there had to be a way to get people off the street.

“There’s a lot of us out there, and it hurts to be there every day,” he said. “It’s harsh. Every morning you wake up to hot and you sit in it all day. And then it cools off a little bit at night and the mosquitos come out … Camping is fun when you want to do it. It’s not when you’re living it.”

The commission heard from a few people who either lived or worked in North Lawrence. Ted Boyle, president of the North Lawrence Improvement Association, spoke in opposition to the campsite and the city again placing a campsite in one of the city’s core neighborhoods instead of on the west side. Boyle also differentiated between local people experiencing homelessness and “transients” who come from outside of the community, saying that helping the former should be prioritized, but not by putting a campsite in North Lawrence.

“You do what you want to do, but not in my backyard,” Boyle said.

Others disagreed. Claven Snow, who said he owned a home on Elm Street, said he, his partner, and some of his immediate neighbors disagreed with those in North Lawrence who oppose the campsite. Snow said people are already camping in the area proposed for the campsite, as well as in the woods in North Lawrence. He said just on a practical level, providing toilets and resources could help address some of the immediate needs of those living outdoors and some of the neighborhood concerns.

Johnny’s Tavern owner Rick Renfro told commissioners it was a huge problem that definitely needed to be solved. Renfro said there has been camping near Johnny’s for two years, and he was supportive of the city’s Housing Initiatives Divisions providing support to people through a temporary campsite, but that a permanent site would be a different story. He said he thought addressing the issue would ultimately take making a plan and providing the funding to stick to it.

Sarah Hill-Nelson, of the Bowersock Mills & Power Company, spoke in support of the campsite and the city’s larger efforts. Hill-Nelson said the conditions she’s seen people living in are inhumane and unsanitary, and she really saw the need for a safe place where people could receive the services they need. She said she would also support a longer-term campsite, but in another area that was not in the floodplain.

Mathew Faulk, housing director at Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center, said he agreed with comments from those experiencing homelessness about the need for multiple campsites. Ultimately, Faulk said he supported the city’s plan, but it would take a lot more follow-through to realize the larger vision of addressing homelessness.

“I think it is extremely important for leadership to understand that the problem as it exists today is the result of unmet need, and insufficient community resources, insufficient community attention and energy on multiple fronts; it’s not just one thing, for an extended period of time,” Faulk said. “Not just a few years, but many decades.”

City commissioners were not voting on the plan for a temporary campsite, but were told that specifics about a plan for a longer-term campsite would come back to them for discussion later. Commissioners said they heard the concerns. Noting the city’s creation of the Housing Initiatives Division, they said they saw the need for both short-term and long-term solutions, including sheltering, supportive housing and affordable housing.

“The dots are out there,” Commissioner Amber Sellers said. “We are connecting the dots. It’s at an incremental speed that maybe I don’t like, but at least we are moving in that direction.”


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