As the Lawrence community considers different strategies for a citywide response to the homelessness crisis, residents of a temporary campsite are living through the reality of the situation day to day.
Lawrence city leaders have been getting heat from community members ranging from business owners to housing advocates to local residents, both housed and unhoused, sharing numerous concerns about safety issues within and surrounding the camp.
Some are advocating for more resources to be put into the camp’s management, to help support Jenn Wolsey, homeless programs coordinator for the city’s Housing Initiatives Division, who has been running the site. Others believe the city should be putting the funding for the temporary campsite toward a more permanent housing solution altogether.
Wolsey said in a recent interview that the ultimate goal is to help those experiencing homelessness to find housing, but it could take years for the city to have 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.
But many concerns are coming to a head, with recent events including a woman dying in her tent when other residents said they believe she was trying to detox from drugs and alcohol, and another woman who had tried to visit the camp allegedly setting fires in North Lawrence.
And as the weather gets colder, the city’s indoor Winter Emergency Shelter doesn’t open until Thursday, Dec. 1, and the Lawrence Community Shelter has been operating at a reduced capacity. (Read more about the Winter Emergency Shelter at this link, and about the Lawrence Community Shelter at this link.)
“If you’re in [the cold] 24/7, it really gets to you,” said Tim Olson, a camp resident. “Some go down to the library, some go to the DARE Center. Those are great places … but that’s only a temporary fix. Then you’re back out here for hours and hours. It’s relentless.”
The stress of these community members isn’t just related to surviving the cold weather. Jennifer Adams, also known as the “camp mom,” said this group experiences discrimination from people on the street but also from landlords, which only increases barriers to housing.
“I’ve had people come in, basically in tears, because of being shunned or looked down on. … It’s not fun,” Adams said.
She said many folks need someone willing to rent to them.
“I’ve got money set aside to go inside, but I don’t have anybody to pay the money to,” Adams said. “Nobody wants to rent to us because of some of the bad apples.”
The campsite currently supports 64 people experiencing homelessness. The camp was opened with 48 city-provided tents, but it filled up within just three days, leading to a swelled population that maxed out at 79 tents.
The site is on a parcel of city-owned land, located just north of the Kansas River bridge near a block of local businesses. The area was chosen to serve as a support site for many people who were dispersed across town, camping at public parks, wooded areas and the library.
Wolsey has been keeping track of the people staying at the camp. Although the data collection is an ongoing task, the numbers are starting to paint a picture of who is using these services and who isn’t.
Although many believe the camp is populated by mostly people from out of town, Wolsey said 88% of these individuals have resided in Lawrence for more than 18 months, and 32% are either currently attending or have attended school in this area, including elementary, middle, high school or college.
The city is continuing to move forward on its efforts to address this complex problem, which requires an equally complex solution. In the meantime, unhoused community members ask that people treat them with dignity and empathy.
“We’re all Lawrence,” said camp resident Vance Swallow. “It’s not about the homeless and the rich. It’s all Rock Chalk, Jayhawk, all the way.”
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Jordan Winter (she/her), a contributor to The Lawrence Times, is a 2019 KU grad with degrees in journalism and political science.