Reversing course, city says it erred and will continue North Lawrence campsite for those experiencing homelessness

photo by: Kim Callahan/Journal-World

Jenn Adams, who has helped run the city campsite for those experiencing homelessness in North Lawrence, is pictured with her dog Babygirl at the site on Monday, Dec. 12, 2022.

In response to concerns expressed by people living at the North Lawrence campsite for those experiencing homelessness, the City of Lawrence is admitting that it “erred” in announcing the imminent closure of the camp and is committing to leaving the site open through March 12, 2023.

The city, in a news release, reversed course Wednesday after dozens of people showed up to Tuesday’s City Commission meeting to protest the closure of the campsite behind Johnny’s Tavern. As the Journal-World reported, people at the meeting raised a variety of concerns, but almost all voiced a preference for keeping the site open because folks felt safe there, had formed meaningful relationships, had a tent there to keep their belongings day and night and felt as though the city had made at least a temporary commitment to them. Some people indicated that they had financial means to acquire housing but were having difficulty finding a landlord who would rent to them.

Jenn Adams, the “Camp Mom” who helps manage the site and who spoke of a desperate need to keep it open, told the Journal-World Wednesday that she was amazed by Tuesday’s turnout — “Ones came that I didn’t even expect,” she said of the crowd — but she was experiencing a sense of whiplash, saying the city “changed their minds more than most people change socks.”

photo by: City of Lawrence

People fill the chamber at City Hall and the overflow space in the lobby during the public comment section of the City Commission’s meeting on Dec. 13, 2022.

The city acknowledged in its release that it had acted without due consideration.

“We understand that people have individual needs and we will work to accommodate the variety of needs of those experiencing homelessness,” the city release said. “This has and will continue to drive our decisions. With our recent effort to get people to warmer and safer environments, we recognize that we lost sight of this guiding principle.”

The city said that it also erred in not giving people more notice of the closure. The city had started clearing the campsite Monday, saying it was transitioning 10 to 15 people at a time in a phased approach that was set for completion by the end of January.

photo by: Kim Callahan/Journal-World

A noticed posted at the city-run campsite that was shared with the Journal-World on Monday, Dec. 12, 2022.

“We also erred in not communicating significant changes to our programs and approach in advance. We apologize for the concerns this created and we appreciate that people communicated their concerns to us,” the release said. “Our team is working hard and has the best intentions to help the most vulnerable members of our community. This is complex and difficult work that requires ongoing evaluation and adjustments as we go.”

The city acknowledged that its abrupt approach “damaged trust,” but hoped that “our consistent progress ― driven by our values ― will be evident over time and earn back the trust of those we are serving and the community members who are critical to our success.”

Adams said her trust had indeed been damaged and that she was just “waiting for that other shoe to drop.” She said she didn’t even have much information beyond that contained in the release.

“The ones that are here can stay, that’s all I know,” she said, “but we’re losing Jenn,” referring to Homeless Programs Coordinator Jenn Wolsey, who had been helping manage the camp. The city did not mention Wolsey in its release. The Journal-World reached out to her Wednesday evening, but did not get an immediate response.

When asked if she expected others who had already departed to return to the camp, Adams said she didn’t know, but she said people at the camp wouldn’t turn anyone away.

“We’re going to get the camp set for winter,” she said, which would include moving people closer together and keeping everyone as warm as possible with winter necessities and fire pits.

Individuals staying at the campsite will be able to choose to shelter at the Winter Emergency Shelter in the Community Building downtown as shelter space allows. The Winter Emergency Shelter, which provides 75 overnight shelter spaces, will also remain open through March 12, 2023. If the Winter Emergency Shelter reaches capacity, the city has designated the East Lawrence Recreation Center as an overflow overnight shelter with an additional 40 beds available.

The city’s Housing Initiatives Division is continuing to work on an overall plan to get everyone housed over the next several years, in line with the city’s strategic plan, the city’s release said. The division is also working on plans to offer a longer-term support site or sites for the unsheltered population after March 12, 2023.

The Homeless Programs Team will continue to provide outreach at every encampment throughout Lawrence, the release said, encouraging individuals to use the Winter Emergency Shelter, especially as temperatures continue to drop. The city’s release noted that volunteers are needed nightly to assist with WES operations.

By spring, Adams hopes that the housing situation will have improved for many.

“From the ashes come lots of beautiful things,” she said.


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