Though city leaders approve temporary campsite for homeless people, they stress need for long-term solutions
photo by: contributed photo
Though city leaders approved a temporary campsite for homeless people, they were clear that the campsite should be in place only for a few months while community leaders seek other ways to address the large number of people living outside.
As part of its meeting Tuesday, the Lawrence City Commission voted 4-0, with Mayor Jennifer Ananda absent, to approve a special event permit for a temporary campground for homeless people at Woody Park, 201 Maine St. Vice Mayor Brad Finkeldei said he understood concerns voiced by neighbors, and he emphasized that a campsite was not the end goal.
“This is a step that allows us to bring 20 people in at a time and work with them and provide them a safe place, but also provide us methods and possibilities to move them on to housing,” Finkeldei said. He said by March the community should be moving on to much better solutions, including having the Lawrence Community Shelter operating at higher capacity.
The shelter has reduced its capacity from 125 to about 25 people in an effort to maintain social distancing during the coronavirus pandemic, but projects are in the works that will provide safer conditions for shelter guests as well as add a tiny-home village on the shelter’s property. Mathew Faulk, supportive housing supervisor at Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center, told the commission that the shelter’s reduction in capacity has contributed to an increase in the number of unsheltered people in the community, and he estimates that more than 100 individuals are currently living outside.
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 facilities and to support the provision of social services. The campsite will provide access to toilets, showers and social services for 20-25 people who are homeless. The campsite is a joint project between the city, county and a yet-to-be-determined contracted service provider and will be staffed 24/7 and operate under a code of conduct for its residents. The campsite will be in place for approximately 180 days, between November 2020 and March 2021.
Woody Park consists of an open field, ball diamond and one slide, and is located behind the LMH Health hospital in the Pinckney neighborhood. Eleanor Gardner, the neighborhood coordinator for the Pinckney Neighborhood Association, told the commission that some residents had expressed concerns to her about how the campsite would affect the neighborhood, as some residents have already experienced trespassing, hostility and inappropriate behavior from some homeless people. Gardner said homeless people are community members that deserve support, but she asked whether a campsite was the best option.
Faulk acknowledged that such issues were real problems, and said there is a huge spectrum of need among homeless people that included mental health issues and substance use. He said that while a campsite is not an ideal solution, the campsite’s goal is to address camping that is already going on in the city’s parks and other areas. The campsite is also one of several projects supporting homeless people that received CARES funding, as the Journal-World previously reported. In addition to the code of conduct and constant supervision, Faulk said the campsite guests would all be screened and provided targeted social services to ultimately get them the support they need to get housed.
“What those issues highlight is there is a distinct need that is communitywide,” Faulk said.
Other commissioners said they agreed with Finkeldei, and also stressed that the campsite was a temporary step while more long-term solutions were pursued. Commissioner Lisa Larsen also said that the purchase of the three portable trailers, which will hook into city utilities to provide bathroom and shower facilities at the site, will be permanent assets that the city could use in other emergency situations.
“I will support this with the idea that we will continue to move forward and work on more long-term solutions,” Larsen said.
The campsite will begin intakes and screening in early November and the camp will open shortly thereafter, according to a city staff memo to the commission. The campsite will remain open until at least through December and would close at the latest in February or March.