Mayor peppered with questions about homelessness, including why city can’t prohibit homeless camps now; Larsen to ask for legal review

photo by: Kim Callahan/Journal-World

The city-run campsite for people experiencing homelessness is pictured Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2023, in North Lawrence.

A crowd of about 70 real estate agents had a topic on their minds when Lawrence Mayor Lisa Larsen attended their luncheon meeting on Tuesday — homelessness.

The topic was on the minds of Realtors because it certainly is on the minds of potential homebuyers. One agent said he’s recently had two out-of-town clients hire him to find homes in Lawrence only to give him instructions to start looking at the communities surrounding the city. Both cited the homeless encampments as their reason, with one describing it as Lawrence’s “exploding homeless population.”

Larsen told the gathering of the Lawrence Board of Realtors that a return to a longtime Lawrence law that prohibits camping on most public property is needed.

“It goes back to needing to enforce our laws,” Larsen said.

So, why isn’t Lawrence enforcing the anti-camping laws now?

Larsen pointed to a sometimes-mentioned 2018 federal appellate court ruling that found the city of Boise, Idaho, couldn’t prohibit public camping if there were no available shelter beds in the community. While the ruling by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals doesn’t cover Lawrence, the city’s attorneys have advised against prohibiting camping due to the ruling. Larsen said the American Civil Liberties Union a few years ago threatened to sue the city if it prohibited camping, using the Boise ruling as its basis.

But after Tuesday’s luncheon meeting, Larsen — upon questioning from the Journal-World — acknowledged that the Boise ruling may no longer be applicable in Lawrence, and that the city might be in a position to legally prohibit camping now.

That’s because Lawrence currently does have available shelter beds. The nonprofit Lawrence Community Shelter has expanded its sleeping capacity to about 120 people. As Larsen mentioned several times during her speech, the shelter currently has unused beds each night.

Given that, I asked Larsen whether the Boise ruling is still applicable to Lawrence. The ruling seems to say that cities can prohibit camping on public property, if there are beds available at a valid emergency shelter.

“Technically that is my understanding, but I would defer to our legal staff whether it is safe to do that at this point in time,” Larsen said.

photo by: contributed

Lisa Larsen

Larsen, though, said she has not yet asked the city’s legal staff for an opinion on the matter. However, when I asked her whether she intends to soon ask for one, she said she would.

“Definitely, yes,” Larsen said. “That’s something from a legal standpoint where I would go to ask.”

That’s a different position than Larsen had a few weeks ago. When I last chatted with her about the subject, Larsen said she wanted to continue to allow camping on various pieces of public property until the city completed a “Pallet shelter” project that will build up to 75 small, temporary homes for people in need of shelter.

Plans called for that project to open in June at a site along North Michigan Street, just south of the Kansas Turnpike. But those plans have since fallen apart. The city has not yet begun any of the necessary demolition and utility work at the site, and it failed to receive any proposals from organizations to run the operations of the village, which is anticipated to be open for up to five years.

City officials have now said the project won’t open until late 2023. Given that new timeline, I wondered whether Larsen had changed her opinion on waiting to enforce the city’s anti-camping ordinance. But, as much as anything, I wanted clarity on whether the city actually was bound by the 2018 Boise ruling. To hear Larsen’s speech on Tuesday, you would have thought the issue was a settled one that left the city no choice but to allow homeless camps on city property. On at least three occasions she said the city needed to begin enforcing its laws against public camping, but said the city would need to complete the Pallet shelter project before that was allowed.

Based on my follow-up conversation with Larsen, the reality seems more complicated. Larsen doesn’t know whether the city should still be relying on the Boise ruling because the commission had not received a new legal opinion from its attorneys once the Community Shelter expanded its capacity in March. Another triggering point for an opinion may have been when it became clear the Pallet village was not going to open in June. That became clear last week when the city failed to receive any bids from potential operators.

“I haven’t had a chance to talk to them (the city’s attorneys) since we found out that we didn’t get any bids,” Larsen said.

But Larsen told me she does plan to ask for an opinion from city attorneys in the near future. However, she stopped short of saying that she would immediately support prohibiting public camping if the attorneys say the Boise ruling is not applicable. Instead, Larsen said she wanted to have a thorough discussion of the topic with other city commissioners.

“It is something that definitely can be revisited,” Larsen said of enforcement of the city’s anti-camping ordinance. “But I would want to look at it as a whole plan of how that would happen.”

The homeless camps have been a source of community debate as some residents have argued they are unsafe, pointing to a major fire that occurred at one unsanctioned camp along the Kansas River. Several deaths have occurred at the sanctioned homeless camp that is on city property behind Johnny’s Tavern in North Lawrence. Other community members have argued the campsites are necessary, and that to end them would leave residents with few alternatives and may criminalize homelessness by putting people into the judicial system for violating the camping ordinance.

photo by: Chris Conde/Journal-World

A fire burns at the unsanctioned homeless camp behind the Amtrak station near Seventh and New Jersey streets on Monday night, April 24, 2023, in Lawrence.

photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World

Debris and other possessions are scattered throughout a homeless camp on the banks of the Kansas River in East Lawrence on Dec. 8, 2022.

As for the future of the “shelter village” project, Larsen provided a brief update of the city’s efforts after potential operators declined to submit a proposal for the project.

“We talked to several organizations that are involved with that type of oversight, but we didn’t get any bids on it,” Larsen said. “So we are again talking with them and looking to rewrite our RFP (request for proposals) so we can go out again and actually get that done.”

Larsen said city staff is still hopeful to have the Pallet village operational in six months. She said the city has hired a contractor to do demolition work at the site, but said the city is still in a process to determine if there is asbestos in some of the structures to be demolished. Engineering plans for the site also are still in the process of being completed, she said.


Welcome to the new Our old commenting system has been replaced with Facebook Comments. There is no longer a separate username and password login step. If you are already signed into Facebook within your browser, you will be able to comment. If you do not have a Facebook account and do not wish to create one, you will not be able to comment on stories.