Future of North Lawrence campsite still unclear as winter shelter will soon open

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With the Winter Emergency Shelter opening next week, city officials plan to reevaluate the need for the temporary support camp in North Lawrence soon.

Camping at the temporary site and in the downtown commercial district is allowed under city ordinance “only when there is no available space to shelter inside,” Cicely Thornton, homeless programs project specialist, said via email. 

The Winter Emergency Shelter (WES) will open Thursday, Dec. 1, and provide space for 75 people seeking shelter inside the Lawrence Community Building, 115 W. 11th St. If it’s open, it qualifies as available shelter under that ordinance. 

The plan is for WES to stay open through March 12, and for the 60 people staying at the temporary campsite to be able to shelter overnight during that time. The city has not made plans to shut down the camp yet, but it will determine the need for its continued existence in mid to late December, according to a Facebook post from the city Tuesday.

Some residents of the camp have been concerned about moving to an indoor shelter because they have pets. Knowing that, city leaders have arranged for pet accommodations, Thornton said. 

“Patrons’ domestic animals will be kept in a separate enclosed area at the WES that is heated and has space availability to accommodate full size crates,” Thornton said. “The Lawrence Humane Society has also graciously offered to provide crates, food, bowls, vaccinations, and generic vet services at the request of the owners.”

August Rudisell/Lawrence Times The Lawrence Community Building, 115 W. 11th St.

The WES will have few restrictions to enter, but “there will be a firm set of rules and expectations” that patrons will need to adhere to in order to remain at the shelter, Thornton said. 

Upon entering WES, people will be given a 30-gallon tote to store their belongings while utilizing the shelter. They’re provided a mat, pillow and blanket. In the daytime, people can use the city recreation buildings as warming sites during their operating hours. 

Some people who stay at the support camp plan to stay there even with the WES open. Tiffany Copp, who has been staying at the camp since October, said she will avoid the WES because she thinks the space will be too cramped for so many people. She feels safer outside, she said. 

“I’m happy where I’m at,” Copp said. “I’m comfortable. This is my home for now.”

Overseen by volunteers, the WES will be open nightly from 8 p.m. to 7 a.m. More than 20 people have signed up for individual shifts to keep the shelter open, mostly during December. But only 13% of the shifts from December through March have been filled, Thornton said. 

A group from First United Methodist Church and a City of Lawrence departmental team are covering Monday nights into Tuesday mornings and Saturday nights into Sunday mornings, respectively, through the season.

“At this time, it is unknown whether the volunteer capacity will fulfill the needs for the entirety of the season,” Thornton said. 

Future of camping

The city has been planning to open a more developed campsite in March but has not released many details on where that camp will be located. 

Before selecting the city-owned site adjacent to Johnny’s Tavern, Jenn Wolsey, homeless programs coordinator, had located two other options for the temporary campsite. 

“So my first recommendation was a city park, identifying a city park that would have an appropriate level of space but already have some of these needed resources in place, like already have electricity, already have bathrooms, already have those things,” Wolsey said in an interview on Nov. 11. “It wasn’t a specific city park. It was just a recommendation that we use a city park.” 

Wolsey’s second choice was a 40-acre city-owned plot about a mile and half from the Lawrence Community Shelter. 

“It’s city property, but it falls under county zoning ordinances because of our land development rules,” Wolsey said. “Even though it didn’t have some of the … natural resources in place, it did allow me enough space to maybe create some separation for folks so that we all weren’t kind of in the same space on top of each other.”

Wolsey said she didn’t push for that site because there isn’t a bus stop nearby, and she was told that since it was on a gravel road, a bus would not be able to make stops. 

Current zoning rules prohibit the support camp in North Lawrence from becoming a developed camp. 

“Any future fully developed campsites would be staffed 24/7, (and) would include certain types of support staff that were available for social services,” Wolsey said. “… It would include electricity, it would have actually flushable restrooms, showers, laundry capability, things like that.” 

Wolsey said the ultimate goal is to help those experiencing homelessness to find housing, but that it could take a few years to get to the point where Lawrence has enough affordable housing stock in place. 

“So in the short term, we do have to focus on the emergency service part just to keep people alive to get to that point,” she said. 

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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.

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