City manager, mayor explain why Lawrence isn’t using support trailers it bought for the homeless; they describe ‘difficult tradeoffs’

photo by: City of Lawrence

A portable trailer that provides restrooms and showers is pictured when at place at Woody Park, 201 Maine St. in this 2021 file photo.

During the height of the pandemic, the city of Lawrence spent nearly $250,000 of federal money to purchase three mobile trailers that provided flush toilets, hot showers and laundry facilities.

In late 2020, those trailers seemed like they could be a lifesaver in a world that had turned to housing the homeless outdoors in an effort to prevent the spread of COVID. But the trailers also seemed likely to be useful long after the pandemic in a community that has an acknowledged problem with homelessness.

But as the city struggles through a particularly tough winter for the homeless, the trailers have not reappeared. The city has them in storage somewhere.

The obvious question is, why?

There have been various answers from City Hall over the last few weeks — ranging from a lack of utilities at the North Lawrence city-operated campsite to zoning problems. But I heard a new reason when I talked recently with City Manager Craig Owens.

There has been a largely unspoken tradeoff made at Lawrence City Hall that is impacting the daily lives of the city’s homeless.

City leaders have decided they do not want a city-operated homeless camp in one of Lawrence’s 54 parks. But the tradeoff to that decision is the city has not been able to find a site that will allow it to offer homeless campers the basic services of flush toilets, hot showers, laundry facilities, and a warm place for a bit of respite.

“I agree that we don’t think it is a good idea to have it in a park,” Owens said when I told him it seemed that the city had decided it would not entertain the idea of locating a city-operated homeless camp in one of its parks.

Owens said the city was concerned about asking residents to temporarily give up the use of the parkland that would be needed to house a camp.

“The parks are used for other purposes,” Owens said. “The public is highly reliant on those pieces of land. They are developed to serve the general community. There is an expectation of that.”

It is not clear how much city commissioners signed off on the decision that parks should be off limits for a homeless campsite. Parks, which are zoned as open space under the city’s codes, already have the proper zoning for a campground. City commissioners simply have to approve a permit for such a campground to be established temporarily. City commissioners did just that in 2020, when they created a temporary campground at Woody Park. That is where the city used its $250,000 worth of trailers. Many of the city’s parks have easy access to the needed utilities to support the trailers.

I asked Mayor Lisa Larsen whether city staff had ever explained to her that by eliminating city parks as a possible site for a campsite, the city was going to be forced to operate a campsite that didn’t provide such basic services such as flush toilets and showers.

Larsen said that topic hadn’t come up in city meetings she’s been a part of, and the decision wasn’t the result of a specific City Commission action. However, she said she does share concerns about placing a camp for the homeless in a city park.

“I do struggle with the idea because those parks are made for a certain reason,” Larsen said.

The city has a wide variety of park types in its inventory of more than 50 parks. Some are highly developed and busy year-round. Others are somewhat seasonal in nature, including those that house baseball and softball fields that see much less use during the winter.

Larsen said the problems with using a park likely aren’t the logistics of being able to set-up a well-equipped campground. The more likely problem is the opposition it might create both from park users and neighbors around the park. That type of opposition, however, has happened in North Lawrence, as well.

“No matter where we put any of these, there are going to be some difficult tradeoffs,” Larsen said. “To say one is more important than the other is pretty shortsighted.”

Some people may wonder why the city doesn’t just use the trailers at the existing North Lawrence site. In October, the city said there weren’t adequate utilities on the site. However, the trailers are meant to be somewhat self-contained. They have a 400-gallon water tank and propane tanks to provide heat, according to the information given to the commissioners at the time of purchase. The North Lawrence site — which the city now intends to use until March — likely would need temporary electric service extended to it for the trailers to be fully functioning.

But the city now contends there is an issue beyond utilities that is stopping it from using the trailers at the site — zoning. As the Journal-World reported last month, the site where the city currently is operating the homeless camp has a zoning category that doesn’t allow for a campground.

The city contends the collection of tents — around 80 at its peak — isn’t a campground. But, if the city provided the service trailers, it would become a campground and thus would be a violation of its own zoning code.

But I asked Owens whether the city would be willing to simply violate its zoning code to use the trailers. The city has shown a willingness to allow various code violations on city-owned property behind the Amtrak depot where an unsanctioned homeless camp has developed. If violations can be allowed there, why not at the North Lawrence camp, especially if the violations result in needed services for the campers?

Owens said he could appreciate why residents might have that question. The simple answer, he said, is the city finds itself in a very complicated situation that it still doesn’t have a lot of experience with. The city only created a division devoted to homeless services about six months ago. The city has been focused on the objective of providing long-term, affordable housing for the homeless. But the interim steps to get to that end goal can be fraught, he said.

“All of these interim strategies have a lot of compromise, and we are having to balance a lot of conflicting values and priorities,” Owens said. “Anybody who is saying this is easy work or there is a simple solution isn’t seeing it from my perspective.”

Owens expressed frustration that more people in the community aren’t focusing on the bigger-picture issue of homelessness and how the city hopes to end chronic homelessness.

“We need somebody to help us talk about how these systems fit together,” Owens said. “Sometimes it would be nice to figure that one out. The public getting little bits of it at a time on certain events has caused a lot of trouble.”

At another point in the interview, Owens said: “The wide variety of opinions that are passionate in the city on the subject is taxing.”

While the city doesn’t have the service trailers deployed, it should be noted the city is offering some of the same types of services elsewhere. Flush toilets and showers are available at the city-operated Emergency Winter Shelter in the Community Building in downtown Lawrence. Other recreation centers also offer shower facilities that are open throughout the day.

Still, with an estimated 200 people camping outside across the city, the shower, restroom and laundry facilities the trailers could offer likely would be used. Larsen said she understands why some residents are frustrated about that and other homeless issues.

She asked residents to remember that the city is being more aggressive and undertaking more projects for the homeless than it ever has before. She said the newness of the initiative has created a learning curve.

“But we are going to continue to get better at it over time,” she said. “We are really dedicated to it.”


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