City and other partners working to assist homeless people who are camping on Lawrence Public Library’s lawn
photo by: Kim Callahan/Journal-World
Leaders from the city and the Lawrence Public Library say they are working to assist the homeless people who have been camping outside the library in recent months.
Since the library closed in March because of the coronavirus pandemic, homeless people have regularly been using the seating area and lawn next to the library as a place to sleep overnight and gather during the day. The library has since reopened with restrictions, and Brad Allen, the library’s executive director, said the library lawn is a public space and all are welcome. Allen said the library and the city are working to respond to the needs, as well as some issues that have arisen, with compassion.
“We are just trying to figure out the best way to keep as many people from as many walks of life as safe as possible,” Allen said.
Others in the city are working to help get those who have been camping near the library and other places around town into safe and permanent housing. Managing and cleaning the library lawn is a coordinated effort between the city’s Parks and Recreation Department and the library, and Parks and Recreation Director Derek Rogers said in an email to the Journal-World that his department informs Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center’s homeless outreach team about people who are unsheltered in parks and on city property so they can get assistance.
Mathew Faulk, supportive housing supervisor at Bert Nash, said that he believes two or three individuals or couples known to frequent the library lawn area are now living in a temporary campsite recently opened for those experiencing homelessness. The city, Douglas County and Bert Nash recently partnered to create and operate the temporary campsite, which has 20 heated tents and restroom facilities on a site in northern Lawrence. Together the organizations work with guests at the site to address any problems and find them permanent housing. The campsite is funded by federal coronavirus relief aid as part of the local effort to house people amid the pandemic.
Allen said fewer than 10 people typically sleep in the area next to the library overnight, but as the day goes on, more people tend to congregate, typically around 10 to 15 people. Though there have been some issues with trash and behavioral problems, Allen said that the majority of the people who have been camping on the lawn are respectful and don’t create any problems. He said on occasions when there have been fights, disturbances, or violations of open container rules or other city ordinances, library employees, library patrons or other people from the group congregated on the lawn have called emergency dispatchers or police to handle the situation.
When it comes to managing the library lawn and other city property where homeless people have been camping, Rogers said that city staff has been following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance for unsheltered homeless people during the COVID-19 pandemic. That guidance calls for allowing people who are living unsheltered or in encampments to remain where they are if individual housing options are not available, because clearing encampments can cause people to disperse throughout the community, break connections with service providers and potentially increase the spread of the virus.
In June, the Lawrence City Commission also approved an exemption to the general rule that prohibits camping in the downtown commercial district when shelters are full. Though adjacent to downtown, the library lawn is zoned for general public and institutional use, so it does not fall under the downtown commercial district exemption and also does not have park hours. Rogers said that a trespassing warning or citation could be issued on city property, but that the city strives to resolve these types of issues without giving citations if possible.
In recent months, there have been more than 100 people living outside, in part because of a reduction of space at the local overnight shelter. The Lawrence Community Shelter initially reduced its capacity last year because of budget shortfalls and continues to operate at a reduced capacity in an effort to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
Rogers said that going into the winter months, the city’s goal will be to help shelter those living outside by providing temporary shelter in hotels or apartments, increasing capacity at the Lawrence Community Shelter and utilizing temporary winter shelters at other locations.