Campsite with 20 heated tents opens in northern Lawrence to help assist homeless people living outdoors

photo by: Earl Richardson/Douglas County

An aerial photo of a campsite for homeless people at Woody Park in northern Lawrence shows the site's 20 heated tents and a community tent. A space is cleared on the left for portable heated trailers with bathrooms, which have yet to arrive.

The heated tents are set up and a campsite in northern Lawrence is now ready to begin accepting some of the more than 100 homeless people currently living outside.

Many of the existing campsites where homeless people are currently living are located along the Kansas River and in wooded areas on city parkland, which have no access to toilets or running water and sometimes result in a buildup of trash. The new city-run campsite will provide occupants with 10-by-10 cube tents with cots and bedding, electricity hookups, lockable storage and a ceramic space heater. The campsite will have heated trailers with showers and bathrooms and social service assistance.

Mathew Faulk, supportive housing supervisor at Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center, said that having electrical hookups and heated tents was key if the campsite were to function as a cold-weather solution. Faulk, who was involved early in the conception of the project, said he was pleased with how the campsite turned out.

“The way they’ve set this up, this is the best of possible worlds for something like this,” Faulk said. “If we were going to do a campsite, I can’t imagine or envision a better way for this to physically, materially have been put together.”

photo by: Rochelle Valverde

A heated tent at the campsite for homeless people in northern Lawrence is pictured on Nov. 4, 2020.

photo by: Rochelle Valverde

The inside of a tent at the campsite for homeless people in northern Lawrence is pictured on Nov. 4, 2020.

The campsite is located in northern Lawrence at Woody Park, 201 Maine St., and was created with the help of federal coronavirus relief funding and a partnership among the City of Lawrence, Douglas County and Bert Nash. Lawrence Parks and Recreation Director Derek Rogers said that the city has taken the lead in operating the campsite and has hired part-time seasonal employees, who received training from Bert Nash, to staff the site 24/7.

“It’s been a good coordinated effort,” Rogers said.

The campsite has 20 tents that will provide shelter for individuals or couples. Faulk said that members of Bert Nash’s four-member homeless outreach team would work with the homeless individuals, with the ultimate goal of moving them out of the camp and into permanent housing. Residents at the camp must agree to follow a code of conduct for the campsite and surrounding area, which includes behavioral rules and prohibitions on weapons, drugs and alcohol. Faulk said his team has been reaching out to people who they think won’t have issues following the rules.

“We are targeting households that we think, according to our prior knowledge, are going to be able to do well here,” Faulk said.

photo by: Rochelle Valverde

Tents at the campsite for homeless people in northern Lawrence are pictured on Nov. 4, 2020.

photo by: Rochelle Valverde

Electrical connections for tents at the campsite for homeless people in northern Lawrence are pictured on Nov. 4, 2020.

The city received $374,000 in funding from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, or CARES, to purchase the portable trailers that will house the campsite bathroom facilities and support operations at the site. The trailers had not yet arrived on Wednesday, but were expected to arrive in the coming days and will be hooked up alongside the tents. Faulk said that The Salvation Army would be providing some meals on the site but that people at the campsite would mostly rely on existing meal programs offered in the community.

The campsite officially opened at noon on Wednesday, and guests must complete a screening process before they can relocate to the campsite. Faulk said Wednesday morning that at least 15 people are currently going through the screening process and that several of them should be ready to relocate to the campsite Wednesday. He said a few individuals have also already started the process of identifying permanent housing and could be able to move into those homes in a week or so.

Two city staff members will be on site at all times, and Faulk said the on-call member of Bert Nash’s homeless outreach team would use the campsite as his or her home base. Some neighbors expressed concerns about the impact of the campsite on the Pinckney neighborhood. Rogers said both city and Bert Nash staff would be able to resolve any issues that arise and that they planned to be responsive to any community concerns.

“The goal is to be very proactive in ensuring that everyone are good neighbors,” Rogers said.

The City Commission approved a temporary permit that allows the campsite to be in place for up to 180 days. The campsite will close at the latest in February or March, according to a previous city staff memo to the commission.

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