Lawrence’s homeless population increases by 51%, the largest increase in the state, delayed data shows

photo by: Chris Conde/Journal-World

The city-run support site for people experiencing homelessness, "Camp New Beginnings," is pictured on Sept. 21, 2023, at 100 Maple St. in North Lawrence. Encampments in the foreground on the right outside the fence are not within the city-sanctioned site.

The homeless population of Lawrence and Douglas County has increased by 51% in one year — by far the largest increase in the state — according to numbers compiled in January but largely out of public view until recently.

While debate about the city’s strategy for serving the homeless has dominated many city meetings this year, it has done so without the most basic of numbers — a federally mandated count of an area’s homeless population.

Now the numbers are out, and some community leaders are saying they lend credence to what has become a common narrative — Lawrence is becoming a destination for homeless individuals from outside the area.

“They point out that Lawrence is feeling a greater burden than most,” Lawrence businessman Chuck Magerl, owner of Free State Brewing Company, told the Journal-World after he did work to get the numbers released.

What the count found is that Lawrence and Douglas County had 351 people who were homeless on that particular night. That was up by 119 people from the one-night count that was conducted in February of 2022.

The count occurred on or about Jan. 25, as the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development required for any community that wants to be eligible for various pieces of federal funding. But the nonprofit responsible for compiling the local numbers first provided them to city staff in August, and the city — unlike surrounding communities — has done little to highlight them.

The numbers do raise questions about what’s happening in Lawrence that isn’t happening elsewhere. Wichita and Sedgwick County presented one of the starker comparisons. The Wichita/Sedgwick County area — which has a population about five times as large as Lawrence/Douglas County — had its homeless population increase by 12 people during the year. Compare that to Lawrence’s 119-person increase.

Johnson County also was notable. Despite having a population nearly a half-million people larger than Lawrence and Douglas County, it had a significantly smaller homeless population. Johnson County’s count found 235 homeless individuals, or about 115 fewer than in Lawrence.

Lawrence’s growth rate stood out among every community or region in the state. At 51%, it was the highest. The next closest was the nine-county region mainly south of Lawrence that includes Lyon, Franklin and Osage counties, among others. That region had a 25% increase, with its homeless population growing to 60 people.

Compared to other metro areas in the state, Lawrence’s growth rate was more than 38 percentage points higher than any other community. Topeka/Shawnee County had the second-highest growth rate among large cities at 12.8%, while Johnson County was at 10.8%, Kansas City, Kan., at 4.5% and Wichita at 1.7%.

If you want to go farther afield, Portland — a hotbed of debate regarding rising homeless populations — grew by 20%, although that number can be deceiving given that the community has a homeless population of more than 6,000.

A destination?

Lawrence Mayor Lisa Larsen said she understands that many residents will see the numbers and believe that they are proof positive that Lawrence has become a destination for homeless individuals from outside the area.

“I think we have heard it all before regarding the concern that other communities are bringing folks here, and I will call it the perceived idea that we provide more services,” Larsen told the Journal-World, when asked why Lawrence’s homeless population grew so much faster than others. “I think those are probably two of the main ones I’m hearing across the community.”

That narrative has been prevalent in the community for years, but City Hall leaders haven’t often touted it as a major issue affecting the city’s homeless population. But the issue has been getting more attention lately. Lawrence Police Chief Rich Lockhart in August said at a membership meeting of Downtown Lawrence Inc. that he knew of instances where law enforcement agencies in other counties were dropping homeless individuals off in Lawrence. He also said his officers heard often about how homeless people outside the region are coming to Lawrence because there is “some kind of network, a message out there … that says there are a lot of services in Lawrence.”

Larsen said those concerns shouldn’t be discounted.

“I think there is some truth to it,” she said. “Now, how much that impacts the increase we are seeing, that is debatable, definitely debatable.”

For his part, Magerl — who is among a group of business owners who have been talking frequently with city officials regarding homeless issues — thinks city officials are starting to give more credence to the idea that the city is becoming a destination for homeless individuals outside the area.

“I’m not sure the city has come to grips with that yet, but we are hopeful that the new focus within the department will allow a prioritizing of services,” Magerl said of a system that would give priority to people who can show past residency in Lawrence. “But, it is still in its early stages, so the results are yet to be seen.”

Some social service leaders, though, have expressed concern that community members may be jumping to conclusions about just how much of a destination Lawrence has become.

“My response to that is we really don’t have the data to either confirm that is true or state that it is not,” said Shanae Eggert, a director for the Kansas Statewide Homeless Coalition, which is the nonprofit entity that organizes the point-in-time homeless count for Douglas and 100 other counties in the state. “The point-in-time count is based on a person’s current location, not where they came from. The data just doesn’t show whether that idea is correct or not.”

More data, discussion

Eggert, though, said the issue of whether Lawrence is attracting people from far outside the area is an important one to determine. More data, though, will be key, she said.

However, homeless data has been limited in Lawrence recently, and sometimes is less than what area communities have. The point-in-time count is an example.

The city of Topeka released its point-in-time homeless totals in February via a news release that included a fact sheet about not only the number of homeless in the community, but other demographic characteristics such as gender, race, age and ethnicity. Wichita in April released a similar set of numbers at a citywide housing conference. Johnson County also was months ahead of Lawrence releasing its numbers, and its dataset included information about income, employment status, length of homelessness and several other pieces of demographic information.

The point-in-time count for Lawrence and Douglas County produces much less information. A reason why is because Topeka, Johnson County and Wichita each produce a report specific to their county. Douglas County’s numbers are included with 100 other counties in the state. The report does provide a population total specifically for Douglas County, but the other pieces of demographic data — such as race, age and gender — aren’t specific to Douglas County.

That may change, though. Christy McMurphy, executive director of the Kansas Statewide Homeless Coalition, said the nonprofit — with help from Douglas County funding — has hired a coordinator specifically to manage the Douglas County count. That may allow for more data in the future.

As for the timing of the data, the Lawrence information came later than others because the coalition decided to delay its release until it had been reviewed by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, although the federal agency doesn’t require such a delay. McMurphy said the coalition may release data more quickly in the future.

The Journal-World received calls from several community members seeking the data. The Journal-World made an attempt to get the data several months ago but was unsuccessful. Magerl said he and other interested citizens got the data a little more than a month ago after meeting with a city official and pressing about why the data hadn’t been released.

The data is important, multiple people said, but the discussion it can create is more so. Eggert said she hopes the community has a conversation about the idea of whom it wants to serve. She cited her own experience as a cautionary tale. She was homeless for much of her life growing up in New Mexico. She came to Lawrence when she was 18 years old, but not because she heard of the city’s homeless services. Instead, she enrolled at Haskell Indian Nations University and her dorm room became her first real residence, she said.

Her point, she said, is that Lawrence is a town that is pre-disposed to attracting new residents, whether for school or otherwise. How do you decide when someone is too new to qualify for services?

“If they have been here for a year or two years, is that long enough?” she asked. “What is the standard?”

McMurphy said she also hopes the Lawrence community will recognize that attention needs to be directed toward increasing services rather than focusing on who can receive them. She said Lawrence and other communities need to lobby state lawmakers to provide more robust services for those in need. She said there is a major shortage of shelters and treatment centers in the state, and often Lawrence is the closest city with services for many communities.

“We can solve this, if we all work together and do it,” she said.

Magerl said he believes community members are ready for a discussion too. He said he can see and appreciate the strain that various city departments and social service agencies are currently facing. But he said the conversation has to address what he and other downtown business owners are seeing and hearing more frequently.

“We have seen the changes in our downtown community and heard the concerns of Lawrence residents,” Magerl said. “But more pointedly, we’re hearing from visitors from out of town. They are really asking: What is going on in Lawrence?”


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