Kansas lawmakers hear from businesses, city officials about growing homelessness issues

photo by: Rachel Mipro/Kansas Reflector

Rick Renfro, owner of Johnny’s Tavern North in Lawrence, says having a camp near his business has been difficult.

TOPEKA — Johnny’s Tavern North owner Rick Renfro says operating a business next to a large site for people without housing has taken its toll.

To deal with the growing homelessness problem in Lawrence, unhoused people were sent to the North Lawrence site starting in September. Renfro said city officials told him the site would be small, with a fence set up and city workers set to oversee a site of about 40 people. By November, he estimated, there were more than one hundred people at the site. There were safety concerns, he said.

“They told me they were going to monitor it, they told me they were going to fence up, they told me it was going to be manageable — and none of those things happened,” Renfro said.

Renfro hired a University of Kansas social services graduate student to teach his staff how to interact with people without housing, and how to de-escalate tense situations. At one point, Renfro shut down the tavern for a few days in an attempt to demand safer conditions for the site.

Because of cold weather, about 20 people are currently at the site, but Renfro expects numbers to grow as the temperature rises. While the site now has a fence up and is under more city supervision, Renfro said, the situation still isn’t great. The site had its third death Wednesday, with a woman found in her tent.

“It’s not a good situation for anybody,” Renfro said.

He was one of several business owners, city officials and other speakers who came to discuss Kansas’ growing problem with homelessness during a House Welfare Reform Committee roundtable discussion Thursday.

The discussion comes after widespread backlash to House Bill 2430, a bill that would make it illegal to use state or local government property for unauthorized sleeping, camping or long-term shelters. Towns and cities with a higher per-capita rate of homelessness than the state average would lose state funding.

After Kansans who had dealt with homelessness showed up en masse to voice disapproval of the bill, the committee pivoted to the roundtable idea, though critics say more substantial action needs to be taken, along with providing more mental health funding and community resources for people experiencing homelessness.

With the rising cost of living prices, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and and a lack of mental health resources, homelessness has been again on the rise.

photo by: Rachel Mipro/Kansas Reflector

Rep. Francis Awerkamp said the discussion on housing would be picked up next legislative session.

Committee chairman Rep. Francis Awerkamp, a St. Marys Republican, said the homelessness issue would be picked up next legislative session, giving lawmakers time to consider what they learned from the discussion.

“Looking forward to continue the discussion for next year,” Awerkamp said.

Other speakers at the meeting said more immediate action needed to be taken.

Christina Valdivia-Alcala, a Topeka City Council member, said Topeka needs more space for people experiencing homelessness. The city has one homeless shelter, and people looking to utilize the shelter’s resources must meet certain conditions.

“Low barrier shelters are needed. Emergency beds are needed,” Valdivia-Alcala said. “And for anyone who does not believe this is in their backyard because they don’t represent a low- to moderate-income district as I do, it’s in all of our backyards. This meeting is a verification of it.”

— Rachel Mipro reports for Kansas Reflector.


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