City brings trailer for employees into North Lawrence homeless camp, but still not using restroom, shower trailers it owns
photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World
There is a new trailer at the city-operated North Lawrence campsite for the homeless, and it has created an old question about the level of services the city is providing the homeless there.
The new trailer is heated and provides a space to get out of the elements, but the trailer isn’t designed as a place of respite for the residents of the camp. Instead, it is a portable office for city employees and Bert Nash mental health care workers who are assigned to provide services at the camp, according to a statement from the city.
The new trailer showed up at the camp — which is near the Kansas River levee behind Johnny’s Tavern — on Friday. What didn’t show up at the site is another type of city-owned trailer: a specially built service trailer that would provide a heated space with toilets, showers and other similar services.
The city actually owns three of those service trailers, purchased during the height of the pandemic for a different homeless camp that the city operated during that time period.
Ever since the city opened the North Lawrence campsite last year, there have been questions about why the city hasn’t used the trailers at that campsite, which at times has had 80 or more people camping at it.
In November, when the Journal-World started asking questions about why the support trailers weren’t being used, the city said part of the reason was the site lacked easy access to electricity.
However, the city confirmed to the Journal-World this week that the trailer that was moved in on Friday is using electric service that already existed at the site.
That has created a question among some advocates for the homeless and campers themselves: If this new trailer can be used at the campsite, why can’t the others?
When the Journal-World asked that question to the city on Friday, a spokesman did not directly answer it, but provided general information about the planned use of the Site Box brand of trailers that was installed at the property.
“We appreciate our community’s interest in the support site,” city spokesman Porter Arneill said via email. “The temporary Site Box that was placed at the support site Friday will help us and our community partners as we work to increase staff support at the site to 24/7 and until the longer-term shelter site is operable. It is meant to serve as a temporary office for Bert Nash to meet with their support site clients and will serve as a place for city staff to use when on site.”
The Journal-World on Monday followed up with the city asking for a more specific explanation about why the site was able to accommodate the Site Box trailer but not the restroom/shower trailers that the city owns.
On Tuesday, Arneill responded via email that: “Unlike the other service trailers you mention, the temporary Site Box requires no additional electrical, water or sewer infrastructure.”
The Journal-World on Tuesday asked for additional information from the city about what new infrastructure was needed to support the trailers. When the city purchased the trailers in October 2020, the vendor advertised them to the city as needing minimal utility infrastructure to operate.
The trailers produced by Portable Restroom Trailers LLC are designed to largely be self-contained, according to information provided by the company. Being self-contained was one of the requirements the city listed when seeking bids for the trailers in 2020.
According to a specification sheet the city was provided when it purchased the trailers for about $215,000 — using federal pandemic funds — the trailers include: a 225-gallon fresh water tank; a 300-gallon wastewater tank; a propane-operated water heater; a water system that can operate via a garden hose connected to a standard water hydrant; and an electrical system that operates off of a basic 120-volt system with typical 30-amp service.
The North Lawrence site does have a single hydrant, and it has some basic electric service that is being used to power the new Site Box trailer. The city hasn’t yet provided more detail on what utility infrastructure it believes is needed to operate one or more of the service trailers at the site.
At other times the city has expressed concern that if it used the restroom/shower trailers at the campground, it technically would be violating its own development code. The city’s development code does not allow for a campground to be located at the North Lawrence site because it lacks the proper zoning. The city technically does not consider the current operation and all of its tents to be a campground, but rather refers to it as a “support site.” But if the site included the service trailers with amenities such as restrooms that feature heat, running water and showers, that might push the site into the category of a campground, as defined in city code.
On Friday, the Journal-World asked the city whether such development and zoning code concerns were holding the city back from using the trailers on the site. The city did not directly answer that question, but ultimately pointed to the infrastructure issue as an impediment.
As the Journal-World reported in December, city parks do have the type of zoning that would allow for a campground with services such as the restrooms and showers. But City Manager Craig Owens at that time said he did not think it would be a good idea to place a homeless camp in the park because he was concerned about asking city residents to temporarily give up the use of some park land.
Owens, in that December interview, said he knew the city’s strategy was creating questions, especially regarding the level of services it is providing at the camp in North Lawrence. He said he understood the concerns among some members of the public, but also asked for some understanding as well.
“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 in December. “Anybody who is saying this is easy work or there is a simple solution isn’t seeing it from my perspective.”
While the North Lawrence camp site doesn’t have traditional restrooms or shower facilities, the city does offer 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.