‘We need to do much better’: City aims to provide around-the-clock staffing at homeless camp

photo by: Kim Callahan/Journal-World

The city-run campsite for people experiencing homelessness is pictured Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2023, in North Lawrence.

The city of Lawrence is looking to hire more people to work at a city-operated campsite for the homeless so that the North Lawrence camp can have 24-hour-per-day, seven-day-per-week staffing.

City Manager Craig Owens told commissioners at their meeting Tuesday evening that finding staffing has been a challenge, but that the city was bettering its salary offers to try to attract individuals with specific qualifications in the field of serving the homeless.

“We have tried to hire employees who are trained in that and who have knowledge in this space that we just frankly don’t have,” Owens said. “This is new for us.”

Owens in his briefing didn’t provide details on those salary ranges or how much the city expects to spend on providing staffing at the site, which is located on city-owned property between Johnny’s Tavern and the Kansas River levee in North Lawrence.

The increased staffing is needed, Owens said, because there have been gaps in service at the campsite, especially since the city began devoting resources to an indoor winter shelter that it is operating at the Community Building in downtown Lawrence.

Owens said that shelter is housing 60 to 70 individuals per night, but there have been individuals who continue to stay at the city operated campsite for a variety of reasons. At one point, city officials had announced they were going to close the campsite after the winter shelter opened, but they reversed that decision after receiving pushback from people who were using the camp and also from advocates for the homeless.

Owens offered no timeline on when he thought 24-hour-per-day, seven-day-per-week staffing could begin at the campsite.

“We are working hard to build up our capacity so that we can staff the campsite 24/7,” Owens said. “We understand that would be helpful. We understand that would be a much better solution for the folks out there that need those things and have expressed those needs.”

He said the city also recognizes that more work needs to be done to provide more supplies to those who are residing at the camp. He said the additional staffing would allow the city to rely less on employees in the city’s planning and parks and recreation departments who have been shouldering much of the work at the campsite.

“We do know that we need to do much better,” Owens said.

Commissioners for weeks have been hearing large amounts of public comment from both people staying at the site and advocates for the homeless who contend the city is falling short in its efforts to operate the campsite.

“The North Lawrence shelter site is an open scandal,” Nancy Snow, a Lawrence resident who frequently brings food and other supplies to the campsite, told commissioners. She said the city has placed too much of the burden for providing for the homeless on ordinary citizens.

Owens said that he was hopeful the city would not need to provide a campsite for much longer as the city continues to work with Douglas County to provide housing options in the community. But Owens said the staff the city is seeking to hire for the campsite wouldn’t be temporary workers. He said the city would need people with that expertise for the long term as he envisions the city taking a greater role in providing emergency shelter, while Douglas County takes on the role of providing more permanent housing options for individuals experiencing homelessness.

As the Journal-World reported earlier this week, the city’s role in providing emergency shelter may expand to a full merger with the Lawrence Community Shelter, which currently is operated by a not-for-profit entity.

On Tuesday, Owens provided a few more details about a potential merger.

“We have started discussions with Lawrence Community Shelter,” Owens said. “What they bring to the table is the expertise that we don’t have. What we bring to the table is the institutional stability and funding. I think those two things can help both of us serve the same people that we both have the missions to serve, and serve them much faster.”

Owens didn’t provide any details on a timeline for a decision on a potential merger, how a merger might be structured, or what type of financial commitment the city may have to make to sustain the shelter, which operates in a space in eastern Lawrence near the Douglas County Jail.

City commissioners took no action on Owens’ update, but said they looked forward to hearing more updates on how the efforts are progressing. Commissioners are expected to receive another update on strategic planning issues surrounding housing and homelessness in March.


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