Support of North Lawrence campsite, other efforts to continue as city seeks replacement for homeless programs coordinator

photo by: Kim Callahan/Journal-World

The city-run campsite for people experiencing homelessness is pictured on Oct. 29, 2022. The temporary campsite is just north of the Kansas River near downtown Lawrence.

The city is still developing plans for how the duties of outgoing Homeless Programs Coordinator Jenn Wolsey will be handled, but city officials say the campsite in North Lawrence and other efforts to address homelessness would continue to receive city support.

Wolsey announced in a public Facebook post on Tuesday that her last day in her position would be Jan. 13. Her resignation came not long after a controversial administrative decision in mid-December to close the city-run campsite in North Lawrence for people experiencing homelessness, which was reversed a couple of days later.

In an emailed response to questions, City Manager Craig Owens said the city received Wolsey’s resignation and two-weeks notice on Friday, Dec. 30. Owens did not speak to any conflict between Wolsey and city staff, saying only that the city appreciated her service.

“We appreciate her passionate service to our community and we know that she will continue her good work that unfortunately, is needed in every city,” Owens wrote.

Wolsey held a key position in the city’s new Housing Initiatives Division, which was initially proposed in July 2021 as part of the 2022 budget process. Two vacant police positions were reallocated to support the new division, creating Wolsey’s position and two homeless project specialists. The division also incorporated the city’s existing housing and neighborhood programs and staff who work in those areas.

City spokesperson Porter Arneill said the city did not currently have an estimate for when the city is hoping to have the homeless coordinator position filled and plans are still in development for how duties related to the position will be handled in the interim. Owens said the City of Lawrence and the many dedicated members of the Housing Initiatives Division and many other staff and volunteers will continue to provide support in the city-run Winter Emergency Shelter, at the support site in North Lawrence and throughout the community where people remain unsheltered.

In response to whether there would be any changes to the homeless program coordinator role, Owens said that as with any position the city would conduct an evaluation and make adjustments to the duties, resources and qualifications. He added that Wolsey had provided suggestions, which he said were valuable and appreciated as the city moves forward, “especially as this is new space for the city.”

In a list of things Wolsey said she either learned in her role or that were reconfirmed to her, she spoke to the need for anyone making decisions regarding services to support marginalized, vulnerable populations to be properly trained in various areas, including equity, trauma, crisis response, harm reduction, the history of homelessness, and Housing First and U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development best practices. Other needs she discussed in the public post included more free and accessible mental health and addiction services; quality data systems regarding homelessness numbers and service outcomes at an individual level (including a by-name list); more focus on affordable housing options; and adequate street outreach and emergency shelter options, among other needs. She estimated that over 150 people are living unsheltered outdoors, and she said that many were discouraged.

“I have walked with and talked with the majority of these unsheltered individuals,” Wolsey wrote. “Not one of them has told me they hope to remain homeless. All of them report wanting housing but many of them have given up on ever getting housed.”

Owens said recruitment was ongoing for people to help in the city’s work addressing homelessness, and in particular to attract people who have experience and background in social services and supporting people who are experiencing homelessness. Owens said making progress would be a long-term effort that would take stamina, investment, coordination and teamwork.

“This work is complex and it will take years to get to where we as a community need to be,” Owens said. “During this time, it is important that our community members are supportive of those who are unsheltered and help support the work of our many community partners to make progress in the complex and challenging work of ending chronic homelessness in our community.”

Owens said while the city is working to provide short-term options for the winter, medium- and long-term plans will carry forward to provide much better emergency sheltering options. As the Journal-World reported, city leaders recently approved spending $4.5 million to create a site with modular homes for people experiencing homelessness as part of a larger plan to spend more than $8 million in pandemic relief aid on homelessness and affordable housing efforts. That includes two additional employees for the Housing Initiatives Division. The modular home site would be staffed 24/7 by a nonprofit partner, and the city anticipates building up to 75 one- and two-person units, community meeting room(s), office units for service providers and bathroom units.

Owens said the city would continue to operate the Winter Emergency Shelter at the Community Building, 115 W. 11th St., into March, and that the city continues to seek volunteers for that program.


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