Urgency sets in as winter approaches and many Lawrence community members are unhoused

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Winter is coming fast, and many Lawrence community members are unhoused. Downtown stakeholders have come together to push the city to find solutions, but city staff members say right now they’re limited in what they can do. 

About 100 local business owners have signed a petition — and nearly 400 others have since joined them — requesting that city leaders immediately declare a sheltering and housing emergency in Lawrence. 

The petition also asks the city to rescind an ordinance that currently allows people experiencing houselessness to camp in the commercial district when the Lawrence Community Shelter is at full capacity. 

The petition’s signers include Meg Heriford, owner of Ladybird Diner, who is known for providing free meals to people experiencing houselessness and hunger. 

Concerned that funneling money, time and resources into an outdoor camp — such as the one behind Johnny’s Tavern in North Lawrence — is a misstep, Heriford said she supports the demand that calls leaders to rescind the ordinance allowing camping downtown. 

“I really just want to make sure that the solutions (to the houselessness problem) are safe, and that they’re trauma-informed, and that we’re not compounding the issue by diverting funds from prevention,” she said. 

The idea of criminalizing homelessness again by rescinding the camping ordinance also raises concerns. 

“I’m not a criminal. I’m not a bad guy,” said Larry Hill, who is experiencing homelessness. 

Chansi Long/Lawrence Times Larry Hill

Hill sometimes sits downtown with a sign asking for help. The last job he held was washing dishes for $11 an hour at the Eldridge in October 2021. 

“I’ve been trying to get myself off the streets,” he said. “When you make $500 in two weeks, and 600 of that is your rent, how am I supposed to pay for my electric, my water? Buy food, clothes?” 

Hill said he understands why some business owners might want to prohibit people from camping downtown. Some people who are unsheltered engage in illegal or dangerous activity in public, he said. 

“They lay their stupidity in front of everybody, and it really does affect the way people see us,” he said.

“If they try to criminalize me being homeless, that’s just gonna make it — you can’t do that. It’s gonna make it way worse.”

A public safety emergency?

Many of the business owners who spoke with us said they were more concerned with public safety than what allowing people to camp in the streets means for their businesses. 

Meg Heriford

“I do not get the sense that the originators of this petition are like, ‘Get this out of my backyard. I don’t want to look at this,’” Heriford said. 

Chuck Magerl, founder of Free State Brewing Co., said there’s an urgency to direct attention to people sleeping downtown, because colder weather is approaching. 

“If we don’t say it’s time for us to figure some things out, it is going to be a major challenge,” Magerl said. “We want some attention given to this issue — literally people are sleeping where they fall and that’s not right. We have people sleeping in alleys, in doorways, on sidewalks, and winter is coming.” 

Kelly Corcoran, owner of Love Garden Sounds, said he has lost virtually zero business due to the homelessness crisis — that’s not why he signed the petition. 

“I’ve always felt like that (allowing camping downtown) was a poor stopgap,” Corcoran said. “… I don’t think public camping is the right move. What I’m hoping is that there’s some real energy put towards a larger infrastructure that allows people to have access to tools to remove themselves from the homeless population to transition into having a place to live to get on their feet.” 

Heriford said she was concerned that the recently established camp organized by the city’s Housing Initiatives Division behind Johnny’s Tavern in North Lawrence was neither safe nor adequate. 

“My concern is that if we’re reallocating resources from prevention services, and putting that into tents on the Kaw, that feels like not a great move,” she said. “I’m concerned for the safety of the folks that are exposed (to) waterfront, cold temperatures with no plumbing and electricity.” 

City workers are looking at several different locations for a long-term camp it plans to have open by March 2023. The long-term camp would provide electricity and water, as the Woody Park camp did. That was a temporary campground established in November 2020 that offered residents use of trailers with restrooms, showers and laundry facilities, which closed in March of 2021. 

If city leaders were to declare a state of emergency on homelessness, it would streamline some of the resources the city is able to provide, said Jenn Wolsey, homeless programs coordinator for the city’s Housing Initiatives Division. 

“With the proclamation or the declaration of emergency, it does, then, potentially open up some ability to fast track some of the zoning restrictions that we’re facing because ultimately, to develop that area (by Johnny’s), I would have to request a special use permit,” she said. 

Obtaining a special use permit would take two to three months, Wolsey said. 

“There’s still zoning that states that we can’t develop a full campsite (behind Johnny’s), and so developing a full campsite would be — consisting of, like, putting electricity out there, putting that full water source out there, and those trailers require those two things,” Wolsey said during Tuesday’s Lawrence City Commission meeting. 

“And so we’re kind of just flying right underneath our own zoning requirements, to be able to provide this temporary service, again, as just a support while we do continue working as hard as we can, as fast as we can, to create and develop that long-term site, which again, the long-term site will have the trailers and all those things in place,” she continued. 

The long-term site will also include pallet housing and tents, Wolsey said. 

The city estimates that anywhere between 150 to 170 people are unsheltered in Lawrence right now. 77 people currently stay at the city-run camp behind Johnny’s Tavern. 

The city is planning to open a winter emergency shelter each night from 7 p.m. to 8 a.m. from Dec. 1 through March 12 at the Community Building downtown. Wolsey said the city’s hope is that it will have a capacity of 75 beds. 

“Again, that’s going to create a dent,” she said. 

Lawrence Community Shelter capacity

The petition asks city leaders to collaborate with “agencies and organizations and stakeholders” to increase the capacity of the Lawrence Community Shelter (LCS) from “50 to 125.” 

“Putting resources towards temporary tent encampments that must house many individuals with severe needs while our community shelter is operating at less than 50% of capacity is unacceptable,” the petition states. 

When we called the LCS to ask what their current capacity is, no one was immediately able to provide that number. However, Wolsey said that lately it has reported a capacity of about 50, though sometimes it’s a bit more than that. 

The shelter’s capacity was originally reduced to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Now, LCS is experiencing staffing and funding issues that prevent it from serving more clients, according to its leader.

“One of the continued narratives that we’ve tried to communicate is, to meet the needs of the community, that we do need more funding,” Melanie Valdez, interim executive director of LCS, told Lawrence city commissioners during their meeting Tuesday. “Currently, we are not able to offer our staff a living wage, and due to that we are not able to retain staff at a proper rate.”

The LCS staff is “scared to death of being forced” to provide services to twice or three times as many people as it currently assists, Valdez said. 

Amber Sellers

Commissioner Amber Sellers during the meeting cautioned against asking the shelter to move too hastily or to stretch beyond the number of people it’s able to adequately serve.

“If we’re upset about things now, imagine if we put too much pressure on a nonprofit to do something that they do not have the ability, the capacity or the funding to do,” she said. “That’s not fair to them and it’s not right of me as a commissioner to force that on them.” 

Although the city partially funds LCS, it does not control its capacity to serve, Wolsey said. 

“We’re in conversations continually with the shelter about raising the capacity and talking to them about what those resources would be to raise their capacity,” Wolsey said. “… At this point, we’re just at a standstill and we are limited on what power or control we can have over the shelter because they are their own entity.” 

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Chansi Long (she/her) reported for The Lawrence Times from July 2022 through August 2023. Read more of her work for the Times here.

Mackenzie Clark (she/her), reporter/founder of The Lawrence Times, can be reached at mclark (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Read more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.

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