Local officials provide more details about proposed campsite for homeless people, potential locations

photo by: Journal-World File Photos

City of Lawrence and Douglas County

Plans are taking shape to create a campground for homeless people that will provide access to toilets, showers, laundry facilities and social services. The location of the campsite is still undecided, but organizers say to be useful, it will need to be within the city and close to services.

The number of people living outside has increased during the coronavirus pandemic, as the Lawrence Community Shelter has reduced its capacity in an effort to maintain social distancing amid the pandemic. Impromptu campsites can be found along the banks of the Kansas River, the 25-acre greenbelt that comprises Naismith Valley Park, and in other wooded or secluded areas in the city.

Instead of the scattered and potentially unsanitary camps, organizers say the project will create a sanctioned and more hygienic campsite, with the additional goal of providing those living outside with access to the social support services and resources they need to get housed. Assistant County Administrator Jill Jolicoeur said the campsite, which will include trailers with bathroom and laundry facilities, is crucial to providing the basic hygiene needed to protect homeless people and the wider community during the pandemic.

“This project will help keep the whole community safe because it hopefully minimizes outbreaks or spread by providing people with basic human dignity but also basic hygiene as well,” Jolicoeur said. “Particularly as our capacity at the shelters, as we talked about before, is limited because of COVID.”

The project will be a partnership between Douglas County, the City of Lawrence and a yet-to-be-determined contracted service provider. The Douglas County Commission approved $374,000 in funding for the campsite earlier this month as part of its plan for distributing $24.9 million of federal money from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, or CARES. The state of Kansas is now reviewing the county’s plan and has until Sept. 15 to approve it.

The campsite

Though the location for the campsite has not yet been determined, Lawrence Parks and Recreation Director Derek Rogers said it could potentially be located on city parkland. Rogers said the campsite would be fenced with designated camping areas for up to 25 single adults. The site would also have lockers, bike racks, a portable fire pit, a picnic area and dumpsters, according to plans Rogers provided the Journal-World. The most expensive component of the startup costs for the project, accounting for $245,000 of the $374,000, would be three trailers to house the bathroom and laundry facilities.

The original request for the project was for $424,000, but that was reduced by switching to a less expensive option for the shelters, according to Jolicoeur. Jolicoeur said that originally the request called for all-weather dome structures for each camp occupant, but that was changed to cots, tents and platforms.

Rogers said the campsite would follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance for homeless service providers and local officials when working with unsheltered homeless people during the pandemic. The CDC considerations for encampments state in part that if individual housing options are not available, local leaders should work together with community coalition members to improve sanitation in encampments, socially distance sleeping spaces, and assist with providing access to portable latrines with handwashing facilities for encampments of more than 10 people.

The proposal calls for the purchase of three trailers that can be relocated as needed, similar in form to semi-truck trailers. Rogers said the trailers are insulated and can be hooked up to power and utility lines and used in all seasons. Each trailer has individual stalls with a toilet, sink and shower, as well as a compartment with a washer and dryer.

Jolicoeur said that the CARES Act funding will only allow the campsite to operate through the end of the year, but the trailers would be permanent assets that could be put to use in different locations. She said the hope is that additional funding and an organization willing to be an ongoing partner in the program will be identified so that the program can continue in 2021.

“We hope that we can get a proof of concept and between now and then show that it’s needed and try to secure some funding,” Jolicoeur said.

Access to services

A campsite with sleeping areas for 25 people would only account for a fraction of those currently sleeping outdoors in Lawrence, but the idea is that the campsite would serve more people as contracted social service workers at the site help people find housing.

Mathew Faulk, supportive housing supervisor at Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center, estimates that there are anywhere from 130 to 150 people who are living outside right now. He said although the pandemic has exacerbated the problem, there have always been people living outside because some people prefer not to live at the shelter for various reasons or have been banned. He said to acquire and remain in housing, people need services and rehabilitation.

“If we want our community to be better, if we want to address a real public health issue, we have to provide services,” Faulk said.

Faulk said how quickly people will move through the campsite will vary depending on their circumstances. He said finding someone permanent housing can first require addressing serious mental health or substance abuse issues, as well as practical problems such as getting identification and finding a landlord or program that will house someone with a bad rental history or a criminal record. For some, he said it may take ongoing help for them to maintain their housing, which takes long-term funding. He said while some people at the campsite could be housed relatively quickly, within a week or two, others could take much longer.

“The way our society is structured, you can’t just plug someone into a place to live; it just doesn’t work that way,” Faulk said. “The landlords, the people who own the property, they have to be willing to let someone in there. There’s all kinds of things that are barriers to housing. So in the short term, hotels and camping is a tool in the toolkit for COVID.”

Jolicoeur said the campsite will be staffed in some form 24/7 and that those who use the site will have to follow a code of conduct. Though the code of conduct has not yet been developed, Jolicoeur said that project organizers have looked at the code of conduct adopted by the City Permitted Villages in Seattle/King County as an example. That code includes practical rules related to food storage, belongings and pets, as well as prohibitions of weapons, alcohol and drugs and requirements to participate in case management, among other requirements.

Jolicoeur also noted that the campsite is just one program that supports the homeless that the county included in its CARES Act funding plan. The plan also calls for $100,000 for the Lawrence Community Shelter to pay for hotel rooms and $125,000 for the Kansas City-based nonprofit Artists Helping the Homeless to provide temporary shelter for people recently released from jail, hospitals or recovery units.

Location of the campsite

Both nationally and locally, the locations of facilities that assist or house people experiencing homelessness have raised concerns, particularly with residents whose homes are nearby.

Regarding considerations for the site, Rogers said it must be located outside of a floodplain and close to medical services, bus routes and other amenities. In addition, Faulk noted that the site also needs to be centrally located, because if it were outside of the city, transportation would be an issue. He said all of those factors will ensure it’s a site people will actually use.

Rogers said the city is currently considering a few parks that meet those criteria as well as one private property. He said the city is not announcing at this point which locations are being considered for the campsite, as the city is planning to do outreach to residents or businesses near potential sites before any such announcements are made.

Regarding their message for those who may have concerns about the camp locating nearby, both Rogers and Faulk said the campsite is meant to improve existing conditions already affecting neighborhoods. Rogers said that people will continue to camp throughout the city regardless of whether there is a sanctioned campsite or not. He said currently, there are people camping in parks, backyards, wooded areas, on city property and on private property, and the choice is to either help them or not.

“It’s not going away, so whether we put 20 of the 140-plus people that are unsheltered right now in a sanctioned campground or we don’t, that population is still here in our city,” Rogers said. “So we can choose to try to improve the situation and make it better, or stay where we are.”

Faulk took a similar view regarding potential concerns, saying that creating a more structured environment for the camping that is already taking place and providing services to those forced to live outdoors would be the best way to address the situation.

“The truth is they are already in your neighborhoods,” Faulk said. “So the idea is, would you rather them be in your neighborhood in a situation that is somewhat controlled, structured and has more access to services?”

In addition to the state approval of the payment plan, the campsite will require some local approvals. Planning and Development Services Director Jeff Crick said that the campsite would fall under the city’s code requirements for a transient habitation, which includes both campgrounds and parks for recreational vehicles.

Crick said like all uses, the campsite couldn’t be on the floodplain, which disqualifies some city parks. He said the campground use is permitted in a few of the city’s commercial zoning districts and could be located in the open space zoning district — the district used for parkland — with the approval of a special use permit. He said that permit would have to go through the usual Planning Commission review and require approval from the City Commission.

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