Johnny’s Tavern to close North Lawrence location until city makes changes to growing homeless camp

photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World

Rick Renfro, an owner of Johnny's Tavern, is pictured on Nov. 8, 2022, center, holding a sign with other employees announcing that the North Lawrence bar and restaurant has closed until the city makes operational changes to a homeless camp that it is operating near the business.

The owners of Johnny’s Tavern are closing the business’s iconic North Lawrence location for the foreseeable future in an effort to pressure officials to make changes to a city-operated homeless camp next to the bar.

Owner Rick Renfro told the Journal-World Monday afternoon that he plans to close the Johnny’s Tavern location at 401 N. Second St. on Tuesday morning.

How long the tavern — which dates back to 1953 — will be closed depends on how receptive the city is to making changes to a homeless encampment it has been operating behind Johnny’s parking lot since October.

“We’re going to stay closed for as long as it takes,” Renfro said.

Renfro said the homeless camp along the Kansas River has grown from 40 tents when the city opened it on Oct. 1 to about 90 tents today. He said there are large periods of time when the city doesn’t have any professional staff at the camp, and Johnny’s employees have recorded 72 instances where they’ve had negative or time-consuming interactions with the homeless population in recent weeks.

“I’ve finally just reached my breaking point,” Renfro said.

Renfro is not asking the city to move the camp, but he does want the city to install fencing around the campsite, provide professional staff for the campsite from at least 9 a.m. to 2 a.m. daily, and allow professional homeless coordinators to have the final say on how many people the camp can safely accommodate.

photo by: Kim Callahan/Journal-World

Crews erected a fence Monday, Nov. 7, 2022, around the city-run campsite for residents experiencing homelessness. The temporary campsite is just north of the Kansas River near downtown Lawrence.

A temporary fence was being erected at the camp on Monday afternoon.

Renfro said the conditions at the camp have deteriorated greatly as it has grown.

“The first two weeks, it was great,” he said. “There were 42 people, and I was impressed. Then, all of a sudden, I looked out there and said ‘wow, you got more tents.’ From there, it started getting worse.”

Renfro has taken on extra expense to try to address some of the issues. He’s begun renting large portable lights for his parking lot, which is separated from the homeless camp by a narrow tree line. He also has hired a former employee who is now a social work professional to have onsite to help de-escalate any situations that arise. Renfro said he’s spent $6,000 on that service alone.

Renfro said it struck him on Saturday — a major home football game day for KU — how much the homeless camp was affecting his business’s operations. Renfro said he never made it inside the bar and restaurant on Saturday, but instead spent more than five hours monitoring the parking lot. Common issues he dealt with involved public urination and people cutting through the tree line to enter and leave the campsite.

He said his staff has experienced more serious issues, including being spit upon and yelled at by members of the homeless community.

Renfro said he planned to “plaster” the intersection in front of Johnny’s with signs announcing the closure on Tuesday morning. On Tuesday evening, he plans to take about 25 employees to the Lawrence City Commission meeting to speak about the issues surrounding the camp.

Renfro said he does plan to continue to pay Johnny’s employees while the restaurant and bar is closed, but he acknowledged he doesn’t know how long that closure might be.

“I would love to be able to open back up Wednesday morning,” Renfro said. “But I don’t know what the reaction is going to be … What I’m really trying to accomplish is a better environment for my employees and customers.”


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