Downtown Lawrence business owners form Lawrence Cares nonprofit focused on addressing homeless issues

photo by: City of Lawrence screenshots

From left, former city commissioner and restaurant operator Bob Schumm, Spencer Renfro of Johnny's Tavern and Bowersock Mills and Power Company CEO Sarah Hill-Nelson speak at the Lawrence City Commission meeting on Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2023. The trio are part of the steering committee for the Lawrence Cares nonprofit, which was formed by a group of downtown business owners and is focused on addressing homeless issues.

A group of downtown Lawrence business owners has formed a nonprofit focused on addressing homeless issues, through strategies such as supporting a centralized navigation center for people to access social service agencies and evaluating options to return unhoused people who aren’t originally from Douglas County to their home communities.

According to an email message sent earlier this week to people who have signed up to receive updates from the nonprofit, which is called Lawrence Cares, the group formed in response to a perceived “need to develop a strong voice in the community to advocate for clear rules and enforcement that would ensure a safe community for all Douglas County residents — housed and unhoused.”

The group has apparently been discussing that need for the last year and a half, according to the email, and has more recently been fundraising in support of a list of goals to that end. Some of them are related to the Lawrence Community Shelter, such as one goal to support free transportation to LCS seven days a week and another to support a navigation center at the shelter.

“We need a single point of access so that individuals experiencing homelessness can be directed to one place where they can access the support of the many social service agencies that exist in Douglas County,” the email reads.

One listed goal pertains to a concern that neighboring communities might be transporting unhoused people to Lawrence. The nonprofit also wants to use its funds to assist with returning people who don’t have a connection to Douglas County to their home communities via a “Homeward Bound” program, and notes that “communities across the nation need to care for their own.”

Another goal on the list is to support efforts to set boundaries around who the community serves — to focus efforts on Douglas County residents.

Here are the other bullet points on the group’s list of plans for how it’ll spend its donations:

* Gather support across the community for a “supportive but realistic” program to address the problem.

* Support Lawrence and Douglas County law enforcement as they enforce laws and ordinances, and advocate for policies that support their ability to do so and to maintain trained staff.

* Support opportunities to educate the community on causes of homelessness. That goal specifies the “need to acknowledge the role of substance use disorder in causing homelessness with openness and without judgment.”

* Support opportunities to educate the group and the community about programs that are successfully addressing the needs of the homeless.

The message goes on to detail what Lawrence Cares has spent funds on so far: communications to develop community awareness about the group, gift cards and cash incentives for unhoused individuals who participated in last week’s point-in-time homeless count, and building a website to “gather coalition members and financial support.”

“We are in the midst of planning collaborative efforts with other community partners and will update you as they evolve,” the email reads.

As for who’s involved with Lawrence Cares, the 22-member steering committee listed in the email includes some individuals who have previously appeared at Lawrence City Commission meetings and spoken critically of the city’s management of homeless issues. That includes people like former city commissioner and restaurant operator Bob Schumm, Spencer Renfro of Johnny’s Tavern, Bowersock Mills and Power Company CEO Sarah Hill-Nelson, Uplift Coffee Shop owner Kelli Huslig, Papa Keno’s Pizzeria owner David Hawley and Weaver’s president Brady Flannery.

The message calls for recipients to donate to and spread the word about the nonprofit, and to contact members of the City Commission and Douglas County Commission about their concerns. The group is also asking for people to share a story, experience or request with either of those governing bodies during their public comment periods.

“Keeping this issue front and center before our elected leaders is important,” the email reads. “We sincerely hope that with improvements at the Lawrence Community Shelter and the opening of the Pallet Village we will be able to enforce a no-camping ordinance this spring. For anyone that has experience in the encampments, you will know that the conditions are not humane or safe for anyone.”


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