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City of Lawrence-run camp for people experiencing homelessness raises concerns for ‘family’ members who already live there

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Jennifer Adams is anxious. She has to relocate soon — a demand placed upon her by the city’s Homeless Initiatives Division. 

Adams stays behind Johnny’s Tavern on North Second Street in a tent nestled near a shade tree. In the year and a half Adams has been homeless, the city has swept her camps six times, she said, forcing her to move further north. 

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Now they’re making her move again — not far, just up a hill a few feet west to a large, grassy area devoid of trees, so the city can prepare the land where she’s stationed now in order to fit more people into the space. 

“Within three weeks, we all have to move,” Adams said. “We have to move and they’re coming. … It’s all set in motion. They’re bringing more people over.  They’re ushering everybody over here. They’re saying … 150, but there’s more than that.” 

The city’s Homeless Initiatives Division is funneling an estimated 150 to 200 people who are dispersed across town camping at public parks, wooded areas and the library, to the parcel of land behind Johnny’s Tavern to live in a city-run temporary shelter. 

“I would prefer to call it a support campsite,” said Jenn Wolsey, homeless programs coordinator. “It’s intended for us to have a space for individuals to go to that has amenities, portable restrooms, showers, and then we will also be there as well. It’s also a place that providers can go to, like one place to meet folks where they’re at, where we can bring … food resources and things like that.” 

How many people will stay at the city-sanctioned campsite is unknown, Wolsey said. The city will supply 10-by-10 tents, and campers who have larger tents will have to downsize so the city can fully utilize the space. Campers won’t be allowed to have storage tents or extra space to keep blankets, pillows or food that doesn’t fit into their tents.

Wolsey said the decisions campers will have to make about what stuff they will keep is akin to the decisions a person has to make when they are downsizing from a three-bedroom house to an apartment. 

“So I will say that there will be some downsides and I’m not going to pretend there’s not, and that’s just because we need to try to use as much of that space as we possibly can to be able to offer people that safe campsite,” Wolsey said. 

Leaders from the division spoke to the Lawrence City Commission at its meeting Tuesday, but not to seek approval for the camp — they’d already decided the camp would be put in place before receiving public comment in a formal way.

Leaders at HID identified the land behind Johnny’s as city-owned property able to meet the needs of people experiencing houselessness while still aligning with zoning and land-use regulations. 

“I will say that we have to be really, really careful because … it can’t be considered a developed campsite,” Wolsey said. “We’re talking about a supported campsite, but we’re not saying an encampment or a managed camp or anything like that because then it will get tricky with some of the land rules.” 

Laws on camping overnight 

Before June of 2020, it was illegal for people to camp on any public right-of-way area. But city commissioners made efforts to decriminalize homelessness by adopting an exemption to the ordinance that prohibited nightly camping. The exemption made it legal for people to camp on city property located in the commercial district downtown — but only when shelters were at full capacity. 

The exemption has never applied to city parks. Sleeping at parks is a criminal offense, and people who camp can face up to a $1,000 fine and six months in jail. 

However, Wolsey said city entities like Parks and Rec have been forgiving of campers, recognizing that there is limited shelter space. 

“So what they’ve been doing is not necessarily enforcing that as strongly as they could because of the fact that we do recognize that we have limited shelter space, and we don’t have anywhere to tell people where they can go.” 

The Lawrence Community Shelter, 3655 E. 25th St., was moved from downtown to the eastern edge of Lawrence in 2012, with plans to increase capacity with a 125-bed facility. However, it has since reduced its capacity to under 100, and some people prefer to sleep outside to avoid being lumped in one place. 

Jeremy, who asked us not to use his full name for personal reasons, said he avoids the Lawrence Community Shelter because he and his partner, Cat Williams, want to feel safe in their own space. 

“There’s a lot of disrespectful, rude people (at the shelter),” Jeremy said. “I don’t like disrespect.” 

“We want our own space, not with other people,” Williams said. 

Williams, Jeremy and a man named Shane, who also declined to use his last name because of the sensitive nature of the topic, live with Adams at the camp behind Johnny’s. The two couples connected while camping by the river at Burcham Park, and when they were displaced by the city, they decided to find a new camp together. 

“We’re like a family now because we’ve pretty much stuck together through several moves,” Adams said. 

Adams, known as the camp mom, is both nurturing and strict. She does not tolerate hard drugs, theft or fighting at the camp. 

Chansi Long/Lawrence Times Jennifer Adams

“I don’t allow any of that stuff. I want somewhere when I put my stuff down, when I come back it’s still there,” she said. “I’ve even had the cops tell me this is the only (camp) that hasn’t had hardly any police action.” 

But Adams is worried she won’t be able to keep order with an influx of new people coming. Recently, the city ushered a couple of people toward the camp behind Johnny’s, and discord was immediate. Eventually those people left, leaving trash and a collapsed tent, Adams said.

“The main thing I’m worried about is all these people,” she said. “There’s a reason why there’s different neighborhoods. Different people get along with different people. But you put all these people in one area you’re going to have … people getting into fights, you’re going to have stuff disappearing.”  

The need for more than one camp

Speaking at the city commission meeting Tuesday, Howard Callihan, who said he is a case manager on the homeless outreach team for Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center but was speaking on behalf of frontline workers, said resources are at an all-time low. 

“Our outreach on-call line is swamped regularly with people seeking shelter, families about to lose shelter, people fleeing domestic violence, and we have to tell them there is no emergency shelter option; we offer them a tent purchased with direct assistance funds,” he said. “They ask us, ‘Where can we camp?’ My answer is a lot of talking around the fact that the city can’t make up its mind.” 

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Lawrence has a history of shuffling people around on a complaint basis, letting people stay on public property that falls outside of the ordinance exemption sometimes, but then forcing them off when someone complains, Callihan said. He said the practice was ineffective, unethical and cruel, making people more distrustful of the community and its programs. 

“What it does is make the homeless population more dug into homelessness … and the only thing that accomplishes is making some of the homeless problems somewhat less visible for a short period of time.” 

Speaking in support of the city-sanctioned camp, Callihan said there need to be several camps in order to provide peaceful living conditions. 

“My only caveat would be that I think we need multiple sanctioned camps so that people who are in conflict or are fleeing domestic violence have an option aside from camping potentially with their abuser,” he said. 

Wolsey said finding land that will meet the needs of unsheltered people, without also violating city coding or federal land-use rules, is complex and arduous. The land behind Johnny’s is a large space that falls within the downtown commercial district, and it’s currently the best — and only — option. 

The fact that the city can only identify one place suitable for a temporary support camp is one that Adams finds troubling. 

“They’re wanting to put us in a little bitty area,” she said. “I want to get it through their heads that forcing all these people into one area is a bad thing … They don’t realize that.” 

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Chansi Long (she/her), a contributor to The Lawrence Times, has a bachelor of science in mass media from Baker University and a master’s in nonfiction writing from the University of Iowa. She’s been published in the Washington Post, River Teeth and Brevity. She was honored to be named Kansas Writer of the Year by the Winfield Arts and Humanities Council in 2016 for her essay “Lovesick.”

Read more of her work for the Times here.

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