‘A thorny, comprehensive issue’: Leaders of Lawrence businesses and organizations call for more action on homeless issues

photo by: Journal-World/City of Lawrence screenshots

A variety of community and business leaders spoke at the Lawrence City Commission meeting on Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2023, about their concerns with tie city's response to homeless issues.

For the leaders of community institutions like LMH Health, Weaver’s and the Lawrence chamber of commerce, planning is everything — and when it comes to Lawrence’s homelessness crisis, they say City Hall hasn’t done enough of it.

They were part of a group of more than a dozen prominent business and community leaders who showed up at Tuesday’s City Commission meeting to criticize the city’s management of homeless issues and call for more urgent action. Some of their frustrations were specific, like the lack of enforcement at campsites around the city or the limitations of the Lawrence Community Shelter. But, as restaurant operator and former city commissioner Bob Schumm put it, the underlying issue is that the city seems to lack a “strong plan.”

photo by: City of Lawrence screenshot

Former city commissioner and restaurant operator Bob Schumm

“From my position, it appears that we are losing ground, and this is putting our neighborhoods and downtown in peril,” Schumm said. “This will have a real negative economic consequence if a workable management plan is not put into play immediately.”

As the Journal-World reported, city commissioners on Tuesday heard an update about initiatives like the Pallet Shelter Village — an emergency shelter project that the city is preparing to open at 256 N. Michigan St. in the Pinkney neighborhood — and efforts to transition to a shared governance structure at the Community Shelter. But the high-profile commenters wanted to talk about more than that, and they and Mayor Lisa Larsen had questions about what they perceived as the city’s lack of action.

In addition to Schumm, the list of commenters at Tuesday’s meeting included the following business and organization leaders:

• Ted Boyle, president of the North Lawrence Improvement Association

• Spencer and Rick Renfro, both with Johnny’s Tavern

• Bonnie Lowe, president and CEO of the Lawrence chamber of commerce

• Russ Johnson, president and CEO of LMH Health

• Chuck Magerl, proprietor of Free State Brewing Company

photo by: City of Lawrence screenshot

Chuck Magerl, proprietor of Free State Brewing Company

• Kristin Eldridge, owner of Snap Promotions

Kristin Eldridge, owner of Snap Promotions

• Sarah Hill-Nelson, CEO of the Bowersock Mills and Power Company

• Brandon Graham, president of the Jefferson’s restaurant group

photo by: City of Lawrence screenshot

Brandon Graham, president of the Jefferson’s restaurant group

• Kelli Huslig, owner of Uplift Coffee Shop

photo by: City of Lawrence screenshot

Kelli Huslig, owner of Uplift Coffee Shop

• David Hawley, owner of Papa Keno’s Pizzeria

photo by: City of Lawrence screenshot

David Hawley, owner of Papa Keno’s Pizzeria

• Weaver’s president Brady Flannery

photo by: City of Lawrence screenshot

Weaver’s president Brady Flannery

• Hugh Carter, vice president of external affairs for the Lawrence chamber of commerce

City spokesperson Cori Wallace told the Journal-World Friday that in the wake of Tuesday’s meeting, city staff members have had a chance to follow up with some of the commenters.

“The conversations continued the next day with some of those who offered public comment, and those conversations will continue with more community members in the weeks ahead,” Wallace said.

• • •

The start of that conversation, at Tuesday’s meeting, was full of forceful accusations and criticism.

photo by: City of Lawrence screenshot

Spencer Renfro, Johnny’s Tavern

Spencer Renfro said that after “close to a year” with the city-sanctioned camp behind Johnny’s Tavern in North Lawrence, the city had started to “weed out the bad actors” — but that the people kicked out of the camp would then move to the unsanctioned site just outside the fence, where he’s been told the city has “no authority to punish bad behavior.”

“During the setup of our 70th anniversary celebration, we had to call the fire department because of lots of smoke and the smell of burning rubber and trash coming from the unsanctioned camp right outside of the city-sanctioned camp’s fences,” he said. “They were burning trash to burn trash. There are no consequences for those actions.”

Hill-Nelson, whose Bowersock Mills is right on the river, said that “Since this really started escalating … a large part of my time at work has been consumed by working and trying to engage with people who are unhoused and that are creating issues in the river corridor.”

She said she went to listening sessions that the city held on the homelessness issue to voice her concerns with other members of the public, but when she read the city’s summaries of the comments from those meetings, most of the concerns voiced didn’t make it in — “the public’s comments are not being accurately reflected by the government,” she said.

photo by: City of Lawrence screenshot

Sarah Hill-Nelson, CEO of the Bowersock Mills and Power Company

“… We really need to draw a circle and contain this issue, and I think we all have shared understanding that people are being delivered to Lawrence, or they’re coming to Lawrence, and I want to ask the city for us to ask the hard question, which is how many people and who do we serve,” Hill-Nelson said.

Rick Renfro put it more bluntly, saying everything the city has tried to do to address the issue of homelessness has been a “complete failure.”

photo by: City of Lawrence screenshot

Rick Renfro, Johnny’s Tavern

From the perspective of neighborhoods like Boyle’s, the issues addressed at Tuesday’s meeting were just the “tip of the iceberg.”

photo by: City of Lawrence screenshot

Ted Boyle, president of the North Lawrence Improvement Association

Boyle told commissioners he sees a big difference between the homeless individuals who are from Lawrence and those who have come to the community from other areas. The latter group is the problem, he said, at least when it comes to North Lawrence.

“They do not want to be housed,” Boyle said. “They do not want any rules or regulations of society. They just want to be there and take the free stuff.”

Boyle added that a lack of enforcement at camps popping up around town is a big problem, and businesses and residents in North Lawrence are at a breaking point.

And more people are arriving every day, Hill-Nelson said.

“Every day I see more people coming in on the bus. And if we build the Pallet Village or we expand capacity at the Lawrence Community Shelter, that’s great, but what do we do with the 15 to 20 more people that we see arriving daily on the bus?”

Some of the leaders, including Lowe, spoke about reports of unhoused people being transported to Lawrence from other nearby counties. Lowe called on the city to be more active in returning these people to the places they came from.

Bonnie Lowe, president and CEO of the Lawrence chamber of commerce

And most of the commenters acknowledged just how complicated the homelessness crisis has become. Johnson called it a “thorny, comprehensive issue” and said that makes it all the more important for more voices to be at the table to come up with a plan.

photo by: City of Lawrence screenshot

Russ Johnson, president and CEO of LMH Health

“As this community coalesces around a plan, it’s not only yours, and I think that’s important to recognize,” Johnson said. “There’s a lot of constituents in this plan that I think are ready, willing and able to be part of that, and I appreciate the way in which city leadership and staff have reached out on that.”

• • •

The commenters also said that the city shouldn’t let the possibility of lawsuits stop it from enforcing its longstanding ordinance that prohibits camping on public property.

In past discussions about why the city hasn’t been enforcing its no-camping ordinance, Larsen and other city leaders have mentioned a 2018 federal appellate court ruling that found the city of Boise, Idaho, couldn’t prohibit public camping if there were no available shelter beds in the community. That ruling was by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and doesn’t cover Lawrence, but the city’s attorneys have advised against prohibiting camping because of that ruling. Larsen has said that the American Civil Liberties Union a few years ago threatened to sue the city if it prohibited camping, using the Boise ruling as its basis.

Lawrence does currently have available shelter beds, even without the 50 beds that will be part of the Pallet Shelter Village. LCS Interim Executive Director Melanie Valdez recently told the Journal-World that the shelter has seen an average of 82 overnight visitors, but its overnight capacity is 125.

And at least one commenter on Tuesday — Carter, of the Chamber — suggested that legal action could be coming from inside the community before long unless the city began enforcing the no-camping ordinance.

photo by: City of Lawrence screenshot

Hugh Carter, vice president of external affairs for the Lawrence chamber of commerce

“I think people really want to start hearing this commitment that in fact when we up these capacities, that we do start enforcing,” Carter said Tuesday. “I’ve got my ear to the ground, so it’s not a threat, but I’m just passing along that if we don’t, if we keep bending to the threat of an outside lawsuit, we could see them come from inside the community.”

Some city leaders, including City Manager Craig Owens, pushed back against that notion on Tuesday, saying they wanted to ensure there was a plan in place before considering whether enforcement was possible or not. But the city did confirm to the Journal-World Friday that the Ninth Circuit ruling played a role in its stance.

“We know this is urgent for the people living outdoors as well as our community,” Wallace told the Journal-World. “Abrupt widescale enforcement of the camping ordinance before these facilities are prepared would not only violate the minimum constitutional standards outlined in the Boise case ruling, but would violate the values that we hold in Lawrence, values that are woven into our (‘A Place for Everyone’ plan).”

Wallace also cited the current structure for overnight stays at the Lawrence Community Shelter as part of the problem. She said because the majority of the beds — about 100 slots — at the shelter are only available for overnight stays, guests must leave the following morning with no day services available.

Additionally, she said limits on how many possessions people can bring to the Community Shelter make many homeless people unwilling to use the facility.

“Many people who are camping are unwilling to leave their possessions and current arrangement until they have some better certainty beyond one night and one bag,” Wallace said.

At the same time, Wallace said the city intends to begin helping people move from camping to long-term emergency shelter options as soon as they’re available, which will happen as the city opens the Pallet Shelter Village and establishes “longer-term shelter capacity” at the Lawrence Community Shelter. Then, she said camping will be reduced and eventually eliminated.

“That day will be an important milestone in our journey to eliminate chronic homelessness,” Wallace said.

But for the local business leaders, that’s still far away, and Hill-Nelson said that to get there, the city will need to make the hard choice to enforce its rules and target its services to the people who need them the most.

“I think that’s a hard, really difficult question for us to answer, but I think it’s important that we ask ourselves that: Who and how many people can we serve?” she said. “Because serving too many people is doing a disservice to our community members that are suffering.”


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