Business leaders push for city ordinance that would prohibit camping in downtown as homeless concerns grow
photo by: Kim Callahan/Journal-World
An ordinance to prohibit the homeless from camping in downtown Lawrence continues to be pushed for after a two-hour meeting between business and city leaders on Monday left unresolved downtown safety concerns.
About 60 people attended a Downtown Lawrence Inc. meeting on Monday morning, with several business owners saying their employees are frightened as they come to and from work, and they are hearing from customers who say they no longer feel comfortable bringing their children downtown.
“This is a major crisis, and I think it has been about four or five months that we have been trying to get it in the forefront of the public’s mind as an issue we need to address,” said Rick Renfro, an owner of Johnny’s Tavern, which is next door to a temporary homeless camp the city has erected in North Lawrence.
The idea of modifying a city ordinance to prohibit camping in the downtown commercial business district is seen as “key” to resolving downtown safety issues, several business leaders said following Monday’s meeting. Since 2020, the city has allowed an exemption to its longtime city ordinance that does prohibit camping in the downtown district. The exemption allows for camping in the downtown district, if there are no available beds in a homeless shelter within the city.
But on Friday, questions began to emerge about the rationale behind that exemption when the Lawrence police chief released a memo detailing instructions for his department to follow in interacting with the homeless. That memo made clear that the city can prohibit overnight camping in city parks, but it currently can’t prohibit camping in the downtown commercial district.
That’s creating a question among downtown stakeholders: Why would the city find it more appropriate to allow nighttime camping in the busy downtown business district rather than in city parks, which technically are not open to the public at night?
On Monday, several city leaders said they were unsure how the city came to that conclusion, or whether the city had ever considered the issue in those terms.
“Right now, I don’t have an answer for you on that,” City Manager Craig Owens told the Journal-World after the meeting.
photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World
City Commissioner Lisa Larsen, who attended the meeting, also said she couldn’t recall enough details from the commission’s 2020 decision to allow camping in the downtown district to speak to the issue. But, she said she’s now open to changing the city ordinance related to camping downtown.
At one point, it was unclear whether the city could prohibit camping in downtown Lawrence and still stay in compliance with a ruling from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. That ruling found cities in that West Coast district — Kansas is not in the district but Lawrence is voluntarily following the ruling — must allow camping on public property, if no other shelter space is available in a community.
But Maria Garcia, assistant city attorney, confirmed to the Journal-World on Monday that the Ninth Circuit ruling does not require the city to allow camping in the downtown commercial district. The ruling requires that cities allow camping in some public places, but does not require a city to allow camping in every public place.
“It doesn’t have to be the (downtown) district,” Garcia said.
Whether the city essentially could flip its current policy by prohibiting camping on public property in the downtown district but allow camping on public park land is an open question that Garcia said she would need to research further.
Larsen said she’s open to prohibiting camping in the downtown district, but said she was uncertain how quickly the city could make such a change.
“I would like to see that ordinance slowly retracted,” Larsen said.
When asked whether she would consider more quickly prohibiting camping in the downtown district if the city allowed individuals to camp in city parks, Larsen said she was open to considering the idea, but suspected that proposal also would create its own set of concerns from different stakeholders in the community.
Downtown business leaders haven’t asked the city to consider allowing people to camp in parks, but several have said they understand the city needs to provide some place for the homeless to stay. A group of business leaders in a letter to city and county commissioners did formally ask the City Commission to change its ordinance to prohibit camping in downtown. The City Commission has not taken up that request.
“I would welcome that leadership,” Brady Flannery, an executive with Weaver’s Department Store and an author of the letter, said after Monday’s meeting. “It would be an appropriate time to reconsider that ordinance and best practices moving forward.”
Monday’s meeting also provided information on several other issues related to the homeless topic in Lawrence. They included:
• A leader with the Lawrence Community Shelter estimated that the nonprofit needs about $28,000 per bed to adequately operate its homeless shelter on the eastern edge of the city. Melanie Valdez, interim executive director for the Lawrence Community Shelter, said a lack of funding and the severe needs of its current guests is limiting the shelter’s capacity to 50 individuals, although the building is zoned to accommodate at least 125 people.
Valdez was asked if city and county commissioners provided the needed funding — at $28,000 per bed the shelter would need about $3.5 million to operate at a 125-bed level — whether the shelter would increase its capacity from its current level of 50.
Valdez stopped short of saying that the shelter could commit to such an increase.
“It is a difficult question to answer whether we can do 125 successfully,” Valdez said, noting that shelter leadership might believe a second shelter building would be necessary to separate various populations.
• City Police Chief Rich Lockhart told the crowd that his officers would be ready to make arrests in downtown Lawrence if there is evidence of open air drug use in the district. He said there have been “a lot of complaints” of individuals openly using drugs on the public sidewalks in downtown. However, he said officers often don’t witness that activity. He said business owners and other individuals who report such activity need to be prepared to testify to the offense.
“I think drug use is where we all universally agree that is the line we can’t cross,” he said. “We will take action if you call us and help us with prosecution.”
When an audience member pressed whether that action would be an arrest, Lockhart said it would be in those cases where officers have cooperating witnesses.
“Yes, we will arrest for that,” he said.
photo by: Kim Callahan/Journal-World
• City officials are looking for a new location to house the city-operated encampment that currently is along the Kansas River behind Johnny’s Tavern. When the city opened the encampment in October, officials said it was meant to be temporary, likely closing in March.
When the Journal-World asked on Monday how many alternative sites the city has identified as a possible longer-term location for an encampment, Danelle Walters, housing initiative manager for the city, said a list of potential sites has not yet been developed. She didn’t have a timeline for when one would be created.
“I can tell you that we are working towards that each day,” Walters said. “Those are ongoing discussions that are happening.”
Walters said it remained a goal to disband the city encampment behind Johnny’s in March.
“It is really difficult,” Walters said. “We certainly want that to not be there by then, but we also have to have a place for them to go. So that is our goal and it is what we are shooting for.”
• It was revealed during the Monday meeting that the current North Lawrence site for the encampment was not the site originally recommended to house the encampment. Jennifer Wolsey, the city’s homeless programs coordinator, told the crowd that she had identified three locations for an encampment, and the location behind Johnny’s was third on her list of suitable locations. It wasn’t clear in the meeting why the city chose the Johnny’s location over the other two locations, which were not identified in the meeting. The Journal-World has asked for the location of the other two sites that were considered, but has not yet received that information from city staff.