Lawrence city leaders express interest in changing illegal camping ordinance
photo by: Rochelle Valverde
City leaders said they are interested in changing or possibly repealing ordinances that make it illegal to camp or sleep on public land, in city parks and in downtown Lawrence.
As part of its meeting Tuesday, the Lawrence City Commission discussed ordinances regarding illegal camping and park hours that some say negatively affect homeless people. Several residents spoke out against the ordinances, saying that they gave the city cause to police, ticket and clear the campsites of homeless people who have no other choice but to sleep outside.
Commissioners asked city staff to bring them back research regarding the effects of repealing the ordinances, as well as the effects of changing the ordinances to make them unenforceable if local homeless shelters are at capacity. However, the commission agreed that camping should not be the solution to a lack of shelter space in the city and that the city, county and community partners needed to work together to comprehensively address homelessness in Lawrence.
“If our ultimate goal is to let people camp, we’re falling down,” Vice Mayor Brad Finkeldei said. “That’s not what our goal should be. Our goal should be to get people housed.”
It is against city ordinance to camp on any public right of way or private property without the owner’s permission. The definition of camping also includes storage of bedding or other personal belongings downtown or sleeping or preparing to sleep downtown. The illegal camping ordinance specifies that penalties for a citation cannot exceed a fine of $1,000, a jail sentence of six months or both, though fines are typically much less. City code also prohibits people from being in public parks after certain hours, which can also result in a citation and fines.
Because of a budget shortfall and changes to its staffing model, the Lawrence Community Shelter reduced its capacity last year, which some say has increased the number of homeless people sleeping outdoors. City of Lawrence officials have said that the city has been more permissive of illegal camping this winter as a result. Specifically, the city said its staff members would not disturb a campsite if the temperature was below freezing as long as the campsite did not present a safety concern to the camper or to the public.
Commissioners also briefly discussed the city’s ordinance against aggressive panhandling and an ordinance that limits the number of homeless people a church or other religious organization can shelter to 15. Commissioners also indicated they would like to reconsider those ordinances. City Manager Craig Owens said that staff could bring additional information about all of the ordinances to the commission at its meeting March 17.