Woman found dead at city-run camp for people experiencing homelessness; body found in tent after no one had heard from her since Saturday
photo by: Kim Callahan/Journal-World
Updated at 5:02 p.m. Nov. 21, 2022
A 53-year-old woman has been found dead in her tent in the city-run campsite for those experiencing homelessness, police and city officials confirmed Monday afternoon.
According to information released by the Lawrence Police Department late Monday afternoon, witnesses say they had not heard from the woman since Saturday night and went to check on her. Crime scene investigators found no obvious injuries to the woman when they examined her body. Investigators are awaiting autopsy results to determine a cause of death. Police have not released the name of the woman.
Around 12:15 p.m. police scanner traffic indicated that emergency crews responded to the camp at 141 Maple St. in North Lawrence after reports of a medical emergency at the site.
Laura McCabe, a spokeswoman with the Lawrence Police Department, confirmed that one person had died. McCabe said foul play was not currently suspected in the death. Police remained on the scene and were investigating.
The woman was a resident of the camp, police indicated on Monday afternoon. They said her body was found in her tent at the camp, which is located along the Kansas River behind Johnny’s Tavern in North Lawrence.
The city began operating the homeless camp on Oct. 1. Upward of 90 people were staying at the camp shortly after it opened, but those numbers were closer to 60 people recently as overnight temperatures dropped significantly in recent days. The camp is largely devoid of improvements, such as electricity and heat. Instead, campers stay in tents and often rely on fires to stay warm.
photo by: John English/special to the Journal-World
The City of Lawrence plans to open an emergency winter shelter inside the Community Building in downtown Lawrence on Dec. 1, which will provide heat and other services. In the meantime, though, city officials estimated that there are about 200 people camping outside, including at the city-operated site and multiple smaller camps not operated by the city.
Despite the large number of people in the elements, city officials last week told the Journal-World that there were no plans to open the winter shelter early, in part because the city was still in the process of hiring staff for the winter shelter.
Efforts to house more people at the Lawrence Community Shelter, a nonprofit-operated shelter on the eastern edge of town, also have not yet been successful. The shelter is licensed under city code to house 125 people generally and 140 people during cold weather. But for months the shelter has been capping its capacity at 50 people. Leaders at the shelter have said they don’t believe they can feasibly increase capacity without more funding and more staffing.
The woman’s death on Monday is the second incident in the last week that has resulted in a significant public safety call at the campsite. On Wednesday, as the Journal-World reported, police arrested a 19-year old woman at the campsite on suspicion of setting multiple fires at or near several North Lawrence businesses. The woman was not a resident of the camp and had not been admitted to stay there, but she had reportedly barricaded herself inside a portable toilet at the camp when police began looking for her in connection with the arsons.
The location of the camp has drawn protests from some businesses and residents in the area.
An owner of Johnny’s Tavern, Rick Renfro, recently shut down his business in a kind of protest about what he saw as the city’s lack of monitoring for the camp after he and several business owners noticed a sharp increase in criminal activity, particularly after the camp size increased. At a heavily attended City Commission meeting recently he and multiple people from North Lawrence aired their grievances about the issue. He reopened his business after he was led to believe that more monitoring would take place at the site.
The camp has far fewer amenities than a camp the city operated in 2020 in Woody Park in central Lawrence near Lawrence Memorial Hospital. That camp had electricity and was able to house portable trailers owned by the city that provided flush toilets, showers and laundry facilities.