During homeless response update, Lawrence mayor asks questions about why the city isn’t enforcing no-camping ordinance

photo by: Austin Hornbostel/Journal-World

Lawrence Mayor Lisa Larsen, center, listens to city staff during the Lawrence City Commission meeting on Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2023.

Story updated at 11:12 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 19:

Lawrence Mayor Lisa Larsen asked a lengthy list of pointed questions, including some about why the city isn’t enforcing a no-camping ordinance, and local business leaders criticized the city for a lack of action to address the issue of homelessness during Tuesday’s Lawrence City Commission meeting.

Larsen asked city staff 20 minutes’ worth of questions at the meeting during a scheduled update about the city’s homelessness response initiatives. Many of her questions were about when it will be time to shut down the city’s support site for people experiencing homelessness in North Lawrence, known as “Camp New Beginnings.” The site has now been open for nearly a year, and Homeless Programs Coordinator Misty Bosch-Hastings told city leaders Tuesday that there are currently 27 individuals staying at the city-sanctioned camp. Bosch-Hastings earlier in the meeting said the city’s point-in-time count from earlier this year identified more than 350 unhoused individuals in the community as a whole, and the city is working to develop a “by-name” list that would provide more accurate and regular data about that population.

Larsen voiced frustration about the idea that a longtime Lawrence law prohibiting camping on most public property can’t be enforced, based on the 2018 ruling of a federal appellate court that found the city of Boise, Idaho, couldn’t prohibit public camping if there weren’t available shelter beds in the community. She expressed a similar notion at a meeting with Lawrence real estate agents earlier this summer.

“I don’t understand why we can’t continue with the enforcement part at the same time we are doing these other items, that we’re trying to build this program,” Larsen said. “(It’s) humanitarian to build this program so folks can get into various levels of housing with the idea that they will be in a permanent home at some point in time; that’s so important, but I think we are missing the piece where there’s accountability for those who are not wanting to be a part of that answer.”

Larsen was referring, in part, to the city’s Pallet Shelter Village project, which will provide another 50 beds for the unhoused population via prefabricated 64-square-foot cabins once it begins operating. But as the Journal-World has reported, plans to develop the project have stalled in recent months and Bosch-Hastings said Tuesday the city still doesn’t have a social service agency lined up to operate the site.

Other city leaders, like City Manager Craig Owens, stressed that city staff wants to first have a plan in place for how to get the unhoused population into stable housing before starting to clamp down on camping.

“What we’re trying to do is build a capacity for people to live indoors, to be in a more appropriately sheltered space,” Owens said. “So when we have that capacity, we are going to exit people as soon as we can … We are absolutely trying to exit people from camping outdoors anywhere — that is the goal, and to get people into permanent housing that is appropriate for them.”

Larsen also wanted to know what other commissioners thought about enforcing the no-camping ordinance, and she asked them directly. Commissioner Courtney Shipley said she disagreed with doing so now. Shipley said enforcing the no-camping rule before the city’s Pallet Shelter Village opens would cause “chaos,” but she called it a priority to end camping in the city’s parks as soon as appropriate.

Commissioner Brad Finkeldei agreed with Shipley, and cited delays to the opening of the Pallet Shelter Village as one reason why enforcing the ordinance hasn’t happened as quickly. But both they and fellow Commissioner Bart Littlejohn — Commissioner Amber Sellers was absent — all agreed that getting people out of tents and into some sort of shelter bed was a priority.

Commissioners heard comments from a group of more than a dozen leaders of local businesses and organizations, including LMH Health President and CEO Russ Johnson, Lawrence chamber of commerce President and CEO Bonnie Lowe and Free State Brewing Company proprietor Chuck Magerl, at Tuesday’s meeting. Most of them, in some form, said the city wasn’t taking strong enough action to crack down on “bad actors” who are part of the unhoused community. One of members of the group, Rick Renfro, the longtime owner of Johnny’s Tavern, said everything the city has tried to do to address the issue of homelessness has been a “complete failure.”

Bosch-Hastings and city staff shared a number of other details related to the city-run camp in North Lawrence at Tuesday’s meeting. For example, Bosch-Hastings said that two staff members with Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center would now be stationed at the camp six hours per day, due to a contract that apparently began Monday. City staff is also targeting bringing an end to camping around the city once the Pallet Shelter Village opens, she said, with the North Lawrence camp as the first priority.

“It’s my vision that we concentrate on one camp at a time, and this camp would be first,” Bosch-Hastings said. “… This definitely will be our priority as we try to get folks moved out of homelessness, and then I think we’ll have the bandwidth to then tackle other camps throughout the community, the larger camps, and then just keep an open door for anybody who wants to get off the streets, as well.”

Bosch-Hastings also provided some additional details about the process from here for opening the Pallet Shelter Village. For one, the city plans on making an operations plan for the site available for the public by mid-October. And Bosch-Hastings said while there’s no specific target date for when the site will begin operating, the hope is that it’ll be up and running by November. She also said while there hasn’t yet been any success with locking down an operator for the village, the city has gotten verbal commitments from some agencies who would provide on-site services to Pallet Shelter Village residents.

One other topic discussed at Tuesday’s meeting was reports of area law enforcement agencies transporting unhoused people to Lawrence from nearby counties. Lawrence Police Chief Rich Lockhart has previously told community members of at least one instance where an individual from Anderson County was dropped off at the Lawrence Public Library, and Bosch-Hastings referred to another instance of someone from Franklin County being left here on Tuesday.

Larsen asked city staff whether the “by-name” list that’s being developed is a tool that will help the city return people to the communities they’ve arrived here from. Bosch-Hastings said it’s intended to be something that helps with that issue, which she said is perpetuated by “bad neighbors.”

She said it’s a problem when individuals are taken from communities where they have natural supports without an agreed-upon “warm handoff” facilitated with whichever community they end up being taken to. Assistant City Manager Brandon McGuire added that when Lawrence law enforcement leaders learn of instances like this, they confront the issue directly with their peers from other jurisdictions.

“What we would like to look at doing … is to talk to our lawmakers about making something like that illegal,” Bosch-Hastings said. “Because they’re just dropping them in places where they don’t have any natural supports, they’re not connected for medication needs.”

In other business, commissioners:

* Opened a public hearing on the establishment of a Neighborhood Revitalization Area and Community Improvement District at 900 Rhode Island St. and voted to approve continuing the hearing at the City Commission’s Nov. 14 meeting.

The hearing is to consider a number of development incentives for a project involving the Turnhalle building at the southeast corner of Ninth and Rhode Island streets, which would convert the building into an event hall and restaurant. It’s delayed until a couple of months from now as a third-party analysis by the National Development Council takes place.

According to the agenda for this week’s meeting, the project is seeking a 15-year, 85% NRA property tax rebate, the creation of a Community Improvement District to charge an additional 2% sales tax for 20 years and the issuance of Industrial Revenue Bonds for the purpose of obtaining a sales tax exemption on project materials and labor.

Editor’s note: This story has been corrected to reflect that the Turnhalle building is on the southeast corner of Ninth and Rhode Island streets.


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