As city stops taking new residents at North Lawrence homeless camp, concerns grow about life and safety issues at East Lawrence camp

photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World

Debris and other possessions are scattered throughout a homeless camp on the banks of the Kansas River in East Lawrence on Dec. 8, 2022.

The city of Lawrence is no longer allowing new residents in its sanctioned camp for the homeless, but now there is concern that an unsanctioned camp along the railroad tracks in East Lawrence is growing.

At the unofficial camp behind the Amtrak depot near Seventh and New Jersey streets, there are now tents for the homeless about 25 paces from the active Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad line. A business neighbor, Tony Krsnich of Kennedy Glass, said that’s closer than he’s seen at any point in the last two years, and he estimated the footprint of the overall campground has approximately doubled in recent weeks.

That growth roughly coincides with the time period when city leaders began raising the possibility of closing the city-operated campground, sometimes called Camp One, that is along the Kansas River levee near Johnny’s Tavern in North Lawrence. The city opened an emergency winter shelter in the Community Building in downtown. The city has said if it appeared the winter shelter was meeting most of the needs, it would no longer operate the North Lawrence campground.

The city hasn’t closed the North Lawrence campground — which has about 40 residents currently — but a city spokesman confirmed on Thursday that the city no longer was allowing new individuals to take residence in the camp.

Krsnich, who also is the developer behind the Warehouse Arts District, said he thinks that is the beginning of a problem for his East Lawrence neighborhood.

“The unintended consequence of not accepting anyone new in Camp One is they are going to an unregulated camp,” Krsnich contends.

photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World

A makeshift tent surrounded by debris and possessions at a homeless camp site in East Lawrence on Dec. 8, 2022.

Not all neighbors are certain of that, though. Mike Murphy of Murphy’s Furniture Service at Seventh and New Jersey streets isn’t certain the number of people staying in the camp has grown. He mainly gauges the size of the camp by the number of people walking by his store who are headed toward the camp. He said that number doesn’t seem to be larger.

The camp, however, certainly is more visible to motorists and other passersby now that many of the leaves have dropped in the wooded area, Murphy said.

Krsnich, who often walks through the camp during the daytime hours, said he’s confident the camp has grown, although he can’t say with certainty how much the overall population has changed. But he said there are multiple areas of the approximately 6 acres of city-owned land that now have campsites that didn’t a few weeks ago.

He said that is frustrating because the city-operated North Lawrence camp — which has been criticized as inadequate in its own ways — is far safer than the unsanctioned camp in East Lawrence.

“They are turning people away from Camp One,” Krsnich said. “Where do they go? They go to a spot along an active rail line with cliffs that border the Kansas River. It is the craziest thing you have ever heard.”

photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World

A batch of tents are about 25 paces away from the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad line in East Lawrence on Dec. 8, 2022.

photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World

Some campsites are very near deep, rocky ravines that run through the area near the Kansas River in East Lawrence.

photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World

Debris and other possessions are scattered throughout a homeless camp on the banks of the Kansas River in East Lawrence on Dec. 8, 2022.

The city-owned property where the camp is located does require campers to walk across the railroad tracks. The banks of Kansas River also are tall at the location, although the more treacherous banks are those of several ravines that run through the property. A Journal-World reporter walked the property on Thursday, and there are sections of rocky ravine where there is more than a 20-foot drop-off, and residents have made makeshift warning barriers with brightly colored bungee cords and other such devices.

There also are immense amounts of trash, which may become an environmental problem for the city to deal with in the future. The city years ago designated the woodland area where the campground has emerged as a “Habitat Restoration Area.” It is unclear what will have to be done to clean up the area in the future, as the campsite is full of items ranging from refuse related to everyday living items to a large number of bicycles that have been disassembled.

The Journal-World has submitted several questions to a city spokesman about why the city has allowed the campsite to remain in operation on its property. The spokesman said the city was working on responses to the questions and likely would have them on Friday.

The city has taken action against previous campsites on that location in years past, and more recently the city did take action against a similar site that was along the banks of the Kansas River in North Lawrence. That site also left large amounts of trash along the banks of the river.

If the city were to order the East Lawrence site to disband, there is no guarantee that the residents would move to the city-operated site or could meet the rules that are required to stay there. In the past, homeless advocates have said the East Lawrence camp has been the place where some of the hardest-to-house individuals have resided.

That leaves some neighbors with mixed emotions about how to proceed. Murphy, who has been at his East Lawrence furniture shop since 1979, said history shows problems will increase as the number of people increases at that camp. He said he has had damage to his property that “you could point that way.”

“The city hasn’t cleared it out lately,” he said of the camp. “But you are dealing with a lot of people with no place to go. For the most part, they haven’t affected me that much here.”

Krsnich said he also doesn’t think the camp has hurt business activity at Kennedy Glass. He also said he hasn’t sought to have the camp disbanded in the last two years, but that primarily is because he didn’t think there were many other options for the campers.

But, he said, the city now does operate a campsite, and it is operating at about half the capacity that it did a few months ago. Given that, he thinks the city ought to try to end the East Lawrence camp because it clearly represents a safety hazard.

“It would be no different than me owning a house that is structurally unsound and watching you climb on the roof,” Krsnich said. “I would say, ‘get down. It is not safe. I don’t want you to get hurt.’

“These people need to go to Camp One or go to another park that is not on a railroad line that can kill you or next to bluffs that you can fall down and die from.”

photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World

Tents that are part of an unsanctioned homeless camp are shown in the background. The Lawrence sign in the foreground is part of the marking along the railroad line, which is used by Amtrak passenger trains on a daily basis.

photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World

Tents that are part of an unsanctioned homeless camp are visible in the background of a sign declaring the city-owned property a Habitat Restoration Area along the Kansas River.

photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World

Tents in an unsanctioned homeless camp in the woods near Seventh and New Jersey streets are shown on Dec. 8, 2022.

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