Lawrence City Commission to consider changes to no-camping ordinance, making some exceptions for homeless people

photo by: Mike Yoder

Lawrence City Hall, 6 E. Sixth St., is pictured Thursday, July 7, 2016

City leaders will soon consider changing the city’s no-camping rules to be more accommodating to homeless people when local shelters are full.

As part of its meeting Tuesday, the Lawrence City Commission will consider adding an exemption to the city ordinance that currently makes it illegal to camp on public right-of-way. The exemption, aimed at decriminalizing homelessness, would allow people to camp on any public right-of-way or public property downtown when there is no available space at the overnight homeless shelters, according to a city staff memo to the commission.

In February, the 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 because local overnight shelters are at capacity. City leaders said at the time they were 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.

Because of a budget shortfall and changes to its staffing model, the Lawrence Community Shelter reduced its capacity last year, which some said increased the number of homeless people sleeping outdoors. As the Journal-World has reported, the city previously cleared all illegal campsites, but city staffers say they have been more permissive of campsites that don’t pose a health or safety hazard since the capacity reduction.

The memo states that the proposed changes would be consistent with recent rulings in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit concerning no-camping ordinances. Though Kansas is in the 10th Circuit and there is currently no case law addressing the issue here, the memo states that courts here would likely strongly consider the Ninth Circuit opinion if a similar issue were raised.

In December, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal in a case from Boise, Idaho, which had found local laws against homeless camping violated the U.S. Constitution’s Eighth Amendment prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment, according to national media reports. That action let stand a ruling from the Ninth Circuit, in San Francisco, that struck down laws against camping on public grounds when no shelter is available at homeless shelters.

The proposed changes to the ordinance define overnight shelter as a public or private shelter with available overnight space that is free of charge to an individual or family experiencing homelessness. In addition to the Lawrence Community Shelter, some churches have allowed homeless people to sleep in their buildings when the weather is especially cold, which is allowed by city code.

Currently, the definition of camping in the ordinance also includes storage of bedding or other personal belongings downtown or sleeping or preparing to sleep downtown. The changes proposed by city staff would also strike the word “sleeping” from the definition, which the memo states would prevent someone who naps or otherwise falls asleep while on public right-of-way or public property downtown from receiving a citation for that behavior.

Homeless camps can be found on public right-of-way throughout the city, such as along the banks of the Kansas River and other wooded areas on city property or parkland. City code also prohibits people from being in public parks after certain hours, which can also result in a citation and fines. The proposed exemption does not make changes to rules about park hours.

The camping ordinance is not the only one affecting homeless people that the commission will consider changing Tuesday. As part of a separate agenda item, the commission will consider an ordinance that limits occupancy of temporary shelters at churches or other religious organizations to 15 clients and five staff members, or 20 people total, for a maximum of 120 days annually. City staff is proposing the commission consider a few options, including allowing for a maximum of 20 shelter clients and staff in a minimum of 1,500 square feet; allowing for a maximum of 40 shelter clients and staff in a minimum of 3,000 square feet; and maintaining the current limits but also allowing temporary shelters in buildings other than religious organizations.

The City Commission will convene virtually at 5:45 p.m. Tuesday, with limited staff members in place at City Hall, 6 E. Sixth St. The city has asked that residents participate in the meeting virtually, if they are able to do so, using temporary meeting procedures put in place to help stop the spread of the coronavirus. Directions for submitting public comment and correspondence are included in the meeting agenda that is available on the city’s website.

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