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Lawrence community members share concerns about city’s camp for people experiencing homelessness

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Post updated at 8:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 10

Business owners, housing advocates, and housed and unhoused community members filled Lawrence City Hall on Tuesday night to speak out about the city’s handling of homelessness and management of the camp behind Johnny’s. 

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Rick Renfro, owner of Johnny’s Tavern in North Lawrence, closed his restaurant as a form of protest Tuesday morning, saying he wouldn’t reopen until the city installed a fence around the camp adjacent to his property. He also asked the city to assign a staff member to oversee the camp from 9 a.m. to 2 a.m to manage the site and monitor who goes in and who goes out. 

Before the meeting, the city partially acquiesced by installing a fence that delineates the separation between Renfro’s property and the camp, which is on city-owned property. 

Back in September, Renfro agreed with the idea of establishing the support camp on the land near his property. Since then, he said, the camp has become overcrowded and chaotic. 

“It has become a warzone down there,” he said. 

The only way to assuage the discord is to hire permanent staff to establish order at the camp, Renfro believes. 

“We don’t have enough people to staff it now,” Renfro said. “I’ve got to see some actions for the safety of the community.” 

Some of the camp residents shared their safety concerns Wednesday. 

Yvonne Pierce, who has been homeless off and on for years, said she fell on some glass at the campsite this week and cut her knee. The rain also flooded her tent and destroyed a lot of her belongings. 

The camp feels less safe since its population has increased, she said. There were tents numbered up to 80 on Wednesday. She said she understood Renfro’s complaints, and that the area gets chaotic now that it’s so populated.

Diane, who didn’t want to use her last name to preserve her anonymity, said the camp feels overwhelming, depressing, frustrating and scary at times. Her tent, which has a padlock on it like all the city-supplied tents, was broken into last week and someone stole several of her limited belongings. 

“How can you go to work when you’re overwhelmed (and) living with criminals?” she asked. 

But despite having had her items stolen, Diane said she feels safe enough to sleep restfully at night, unafraid that someone would harm her. 

Renfro said he has cited 85 incidents from having the camp so close to his business. He said he has called the police for 15 to 20 of those, and normally it’s for a trespassing violation. 

Some community members were critical of Renfro during the public comment portion of the city commission meeting Tuesday. 

“When did the city commission’s role become prioritizing business owners over the people of this community — both housed and unhoused?” Micha Anne Cox said.

August Rudisell/Lawrence Times Lawrence city commissioners listen to public comment from Micha Anne Cox during their meeting Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2022.

“The idea that safety is being discussed completely excluding the safety of our houseless community members is astonishing to me,” Cox continued. “… How many of you here tonight in support of Johnny’s Tavern are committed to doing this work? How many of you are here to volunteer at the emergency winter shelter, which always needs volunteers? … Or do we not view our unhoused members as a part of the community when we are the ones who have failed them?” 

Mariel Ferreiro spoke as a community member and a housing advocate.

“We know that shelter is not the answer. We know that camps are not the answer. We know that housing is the answer,” Ferreiro said. “It’s disheartening to hear the upset and the demand for immediate access, immediate access to services when we just are at full capacity. And so my hope is that the community will understand that we are working towards the solutions. I know the city’s new department is working very hard tirelessly and endlessly, and if there could be more room for more support at that site and to open multiple sites, we would have already done it.”

August Rudisell/Lawrence Times Mariel Ferreiro speaks to the Lawrence City Commission on Tuesday.

Howard Callihan, a member of the Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center homeless outreach team, said he wished people would temper their expectations of conduct at the camp. Incidents will occur, he said, but it’s a matter of how to respond to them or whether there is enough staff on site to manage those disruptions. 

“I do think that having enough people there to be able to manage maintaining some kind of standard is a good idea,” he said. “But I think that people need to take a step back to a certain degree in terms of what kind of outcomes they expect. I don’t think that it’s reasonable to expect, you know, a homeless camp to be better behaved than your standard high school or middle school, for instance.”

Others spoke about negative experiences they associated with the camp. 

Morgan Michels, who owns a used car lot in North Lawrence, said people from the camp had stolen her mail, and damaged the vehicles in her lot, breaking the back windows of one car. She said one person also attacked her husband. She said she is afraid to work at her business, but she is also afraid for the people who have to stay at the camp. 

“They have to live there, but there’s a few select people that come in and destroy the camp,” she said. “Multiple homeless people would like protection there for themselves. They want someone to come there and monitor them from nine to three. They want to do better for our community but our community is not doing better for them.”

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Some people staying at the camp self-advocated at the meeting. 

“When I walk into Johnny’s Tavern, I got money in my pocket, and they refuse to serve me,” Tim Olson, who has been homeless for nearly four years, told commissioners. “I’m sorry. That is totally illegal. And I don’t care if they want to close that place up. I would be proud to say I helped close that place down.”

Olson said he was homeless because Lawrence is an expensive town, and he cannot afford to make it on his own. 

August Rudisell/Lawrence Times Tim Olson speaks to the Lawrence City Commission at the lectern on Tuesday. Leaning against the column behind him is Rick Renfro, owner of Johnny’s Tavern.

Tiffany Copp, 21, has been staying at the camp by Johnny’s for several weeks. She said in the first week of her stay, someone at the camp sexually assaulted her. She went to Johnny’s afterward to merely sit and calm her emotions. Someone at Johnny’s asked her to leave immediately, she said — not because she was causing problems, but because she stays at the camp. 

She’d like to be able to still go in there and buy food, she said. 

“I wanted to speak because I thought people knowing what happened to me might change things,” she said. “(Johnny’s) discriminates against us.”

In interviews with people at the camp by Johnny’s, several people said staff at Johnny’s refused them service, even though they had money, because of their association with the camp. 

“I spoke with the owner personally, to double check,” said Jessica Ritch, who’s been staying at the camp for a few weeks. “I asked (Renfro) because I told him that we were told that if we wanted just a cheeseburger and that we were going to be a paying customer, that he didn’t want us in his establishment. So that seemed odd to me. You know what I mean? He said that yes, I was correct. He didn’t want us.” 

Renfro did not respond to calls and a voicemail seeking comment Wednesday on whether he has refused service to patrons who are experiencing homelessness. The restaurant was still closed Wednesday afternoon.

During the city commission meeting Tuesday, Vice Mayor Lisa Larsen asked Renfro whether he felt the city was resolving his safety concerns. 

“If I might ask Rick, are you at a point with how you’re working with the city that you feel the safety issues are being addressed or have been addressed?” 

Renfro said he feels city leaders are listening but that his concerns have not been addressed yet. He said he was told the city is trying to put more staff at the campsite to help manage things, but that the promise has not materialized into an actual appointment yet. 

“Almost everyone is in agreement that we need some monitoring,” he said. 

Diane, one of the camp residents, said she is most afraid of the impending cold weather. The tents are highly flammable and cannot be near a source of heat, she said. She fears some people will die of hypothermia this winter. 

Other people at the camp shared her fear. 

“They don’t know what’s coming,” said one man who has spent two winters living outside.

Camp residents said they most need winter clothing (preferably Carhartt for its durability), women’s clothing, blankets, hats and long johns. 

Update, 8:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 10: According to a Facebook post from Johnny’s Tavern, the restaurant plans to reopen Friday morning. We have been unable to reach Renfro for further information.

Chansi Long/Lawrence Times

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Chansi Long (she/her), Lawrence life reporter, can be reached at clong (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Read more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.

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