City has no plans to close unsanctioned homeless camp near depot; meanwhile, downtown emergency shelter is operating far below capacity

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.

Lawrence officials don’t have plans to close or clean an unsanctioned East Lawrence homeless camp despite concerns that it is growing and is producing large amounts of trash near the Kansas River.

A spokesman said City Hall leaders don’t yet believe they can feasibly shut down the camp because they don’t believe there are enough alternative shelter locations available in the city.

“We believe that unsheltered homelessness is not an acceptable or safe option for anyone,” City of Lawrence spokesman Porter Arneill said via email. “At this time though, due to the current lack of much needed alternative emergency sheltering and affordable housing options, we recognize that unsheltered homelessness and encampments have been and will be a reality until we get much-needed resources in place.”

However, city officials also confirmed to the Journal-World on Friday that the largest number of people who have stayed at the city’s temporary Emergency Winter Shelter — which opened Dec. 1 — has been 38. The shelter in the Community Building in downtown Lawrence has a capacity of 75 people. In addition, the Lawrence Community Shelter, a nonprofit-operated facility in eastern Lawrence, has said it could provide an additional 12 beds if the downtown emergency shelter fills up.

In other words, there have been at least 49 beds available every night in the city since Dec. 1, according to the totals provided by the city.

The city commented on the unsanctioned homeless camp — located behind the Amtrak depot near Seventh and New Jersey streets — after the Journal-World on Thursday published an article showing the living conditions in the camp, which includes large amounts of trash and campsites located close to railroad tracks and rocky ravines with dangerous drops.

The article also included comments from a business owner near the site who believes the camp is growing since the city decided to no longer accept new residents for a city-operated camp site in North Lawrence.

The Journal-World on Thursday reached out to city officials with questions about the camp, and they responded on Friday. While the city told the Journal-World it did not have plans to close the camp, it did not address why the city is not proposing to move the camp to another piece of city property that does not have some of the hazards of the site near Seventh and New Jersey streets.

The city-operated homeless camp near the Kansas River levee in North Lawrence had about 40 residents earlier this week, which is about half the amount the camp typically hosted last month. City officials didn’t address what, if any, considerations have been given to disbanding the camp near the depot and telling residents to relocate to the city-operated camp in North Lawrence.

In its written statement, the city did say that outreach workers do visit the unsanctioned depot camp and urge residents there to relocate to the Winter Emergency Shelter.

But nothing in the city’s statement indicated that city officials are ticketing residents of the depot camp for illegally camping on city property. The city did not directly answer a question from the Journal-World about whether city code allows for camping to occur on the property. However, what is clear is that as the owner of the approximately 6-acre property, the city could cite the individuals for trespass, if the city decided it no longer wanted people on the property.

The city’s ownership of the property is important in another way. When asked by the Journal-World, the city acknowledged that it might face legal liability if a camper is injured on the property, since the city is the owner of the site.

Arneill said the city is not ruling out closing the camp in the future.

“As alternative sheltering options come online in the future, the city will continue to evaluate and determine best steps on when and how to work toward shutting down unsanctioned encampments,” Arneill said via email.


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