Community members share thoughts about how to support homeless population at forum

photo by: Austin Hornbostel/Journal-World

Lawrence City Commissioner Lisa Larsen listens to a community member during a forum about how to support people experiencing homelessness Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2023.

A couple dozen community members gathered at the Carnegie Building in downtown Lawrence on Wednesday night to share their thoughts about how to support people experiencing homelessness.

The forum was facilitated by a coalition of local housing organizations including Ecumenical Campus Ministries, Lawrence Mutual Aid, Lawrence Tenants, People’s Owned and Operated Collective Housing and the Sanctuary Alliance. That group invited people to come and discuss how the city should approach family-specific and non-congregate emergency shelter as winter approaches.

Members of the Lawrence City Commission were invited to attend, according to a press release announcing the event, and one of the five commissioners did — Lisa Larsen. But Larsen mostly listened as other participants shared their thoughts about what they want to see from the city to support the unhoused population and whether they’ve seen any forms of inaction from the community at large.

“There’s not a lot of spaces where we can get together as a community and have conversations about things that really matter to us, and I think especially this season when it’s colder outside, when folks who are experiencing homelessness are feeling the effects of the elements a little bit more drastically than at warmer temperature,” Mariel Ferreiro, one of the forum’s co-facilitators, told the group.

Ferreiro said the coalition had developed a shortlist of base concerns, including the more urgent need for more emergency sheltering options beyond just the Lawrence Community Shelter. The meeting’s other co-facilitator, Kincaid Dennett, noted that the city’s 2023 point-in-time count is one example of why. The federally mandated count of the area’s homeless population found that Lawrence and Douglas County had 351 people who were homeless on a particular night in late January, but the shelter has capacity for less than half of that.

Ferreiro said the coalition is also concerned about the city’s online form for reporting new homeless camps around the city, which went live in mid-October. She said the coalition feels the form isn’t a productive resource and seems to only be a tool for “reporting people for the sake of reporting them.”

When it comes to the question of what people at Wednesday’s forum would like to see from the city to support people experiencing homelessness, the group had a few ideas. Some said they thought people should be allowed to camp around the city while there aren’t enough emergency shelter slots to go around, and others voiced the need for accessible, affordable mental health care and wrap-around services.

Another participant thought implementing “inclusive screening” for prospective tenants could be a useful tool. That type of screening involves eliminating steps like credit checks from the rental process, which they said can often be a barrier to people even beyond the unhoused population.

Participants also shared their thoughts about what, if any, inaction they’ve seen from the community at large. Many of those who offered their perspectives said they’re seeing gaps in how service providers communicate with one another, which might lead to them being unaware that another agency they’ve referred a client to for help may not be in a position to help them. They said increased communication among those groups would be helpful.


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