Editorial: Lawrence’s unhappy camping problem

photo by: Journal-World Photo Illustration

Lawrence Journal-World Editorial

Lawrence strives to be a compassionate community. That’s an admirable quality and a good goal that we should smartly try to build upon.

Thus, it seems this question is reasonable: How is it compassionate to have at least 200 people living in tents or tarps all across the city, defecating in the woods, going days without showers and wearing unlaundered clothes during the middle of a heat wave? And thus, this next one is perhaps even more reasonable: How is it compassionate to have that situation exist, while the City of Lawrence has nearly $200,000 in portable trailers with bathrooms, showers, laundry facilities and other hygiene needs sitting locked away in a city parking lot somewhere?

That’s what is happening right now. Many Lawrence residents are well aware of the camping situation. All you have to do is take a walk on one of the hike and bike paths the city is so proud of, and you have a good chance to walking past a camp in the woods.

Residents have perhaps forgotten about the trailers, though. The city was allocated about $190,000 in the first round of federal CARES act funding to buy the trailers. In November the city opened a homeless campsite near Lawrence Memorial Hospital using the trailers. By spring, the camp was closed.

The Journal-World, though, wondered why would a campsite for the homeless be any less necessary during this summer period? Even if a campsite isn’t feasible, why would the city not be using these trailers to provide basic sanitation needs during a time when the heat index is regularly above 100 degrees?

City officials recently confirmed they have no plans to restart the homeless camp or start using the trailers again. Cost to run a camp was a big city concern. The city said two part-time employees to monitor the camp cost the city about $28,800 per month.

Wow. Let’s pause a moment here. This is a reason why some people don’t like government. The city can’t figure out how to whittle the cost of employing two part-time employees below $28,000 a month? It gets nearly $200,000 in taxpayer money to buy sanitation trailers and now it can’t figure out how to feasibly deploy them?

Granted, cutting costs is sometimes easier said than done. So, let’s assume costs can’t be cut. At $28,800 a month, that’s about $350,000 for a year. That represents about 1.5% of what the city is receiving as part of the American Rescue Plan Act. It could be argued that spending 1.5% of that “rescue” money on a program to provide basic sanitation to those in need is reasonable. None of this factors in the $23 million the county is expected to receive from the American Rescue Act. It should be noted that the County Commission, which recently approved a property tax rate increase, hasn’t figured out how to spend its $23 million yet.

The city has said that it could do an unmanaged, less restrictive campsite for less money, but that such a campsite likely would result in more negative interactions with nearby residents and the public. That is likely very true, but also very tone deaf. That is the situation that exists in the city today. There are multiple, unmanaged campsites randomly placed around the city. They have been known to cause some problems.

It seems like the city is saying it doesn’t want to be involved with that type of camp, but it is fine if they happen to exist.

These trailers are no silver bullet. They won’t solve a lot of problems, but it is frustrating to see them go unused when clearly they could solve some problems.

But they are useful presently as a reminder of how our current thinking isn’t working. Allowing people to camp across the city in unmanaged ways is not a good idea, even by the city’s own admission.

It also is not compassionate. It is just easier than solving the problem — and even easier than pulling some trailers out of a parking lot.


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