Post last updated at noon Tuesday, Dec. 13:
The City of Lawrence said Tuesday morning that people experiencing homelessness are being cleared out of the camp in North Lawrence in order to “refocus resources” to the overnight Winter Emergency Shelter.
We reported Monday that residents of the camp were distraught after receiving waves of eviction notices. Some residents were directed to leave the camp by noon Tuesday; some have until Jan. 15 at the latest. The city did not respond to questions Monday.
City staff said in a news release Tuesday morning that it is “transitioning individuals, 10 to 15 people at a time, from the support site to the WES in a phased approach to be completed by the end of January.”
The city notice to residents informs them that they should remove their personal items from the grounds, or the items will be considered abandoned and will be disposed of. It mentions that the WES has available emergency sheltering spaces.
The city’s plan includes “removing City staff support” from the campsite, “which will allow the Homeless Programs Team to focus on longer-term solutions to both homelessness and affordable housing,” according to the release. “The team will continue to evaluate the need and provide recommendations for short-term sheltering resources as they work toward more long-term solutions.”
The release says the city will also “remove City support from the site” by the end of January. That means removing the city-issued tents, fencing, portable toilets and dumpsters “as well as any other property discarded by current campers.”
The overnight Winter Emergency Shelter at the Lawrence Community Building can accommodate 75 people each night, but some residents of the camp have said they don’t want to go there for numerous reasons, including that pets must stay in a different room, and there are no partitions between people sleeping there. The city has also struggled to secure enough volunteers to keep the site open.
The city will also open an overflow shelter site to accommodate another 40 people at the East Lawrence Recreation Center if needed, and if it can get enough volunteer support for a second overnight site, according to the release.
Current city ordinance allows camping at the temporary site and in the downtown commercial district “only when there is no available space to shelter inside,” Cicely Thornton, homeless programs project specialist, said via email last month.
“While there will no longer be City support at the property in North Lawrence, it will remain an approved area for unsheltered individuals to camp if there are no alternative shelter options available to them, per City Ordinance 9754,” according to Tuesday’s release.
“While the Homeless Programs Team initially considered keeping the support site in North Lawrence open concurrently with the WES, much has been learned from the support site about what the full need is in our community,” according to the release. “With this and colder weather forecasted, the team has determined it would be best to refocus resources on the opening of an overflow overnight shelter to accommodate people in need of an indoor sheltering space as the weather turns colder.”
The city plans to continue outreach at every encampment throughout Lawrence and encourage residents to use the WES, according to the release.
“As more sheltering options become available in the future, the City will continue to evaluate and determine next steps regarding unsanctioned encampments,” according to the release.
Some residents experiencing homelessness have also shared concerns about what would happen if the city disallows camping, and if camping is criminalized.
“I’m not a criminal. I’m not a bad guy,” Larry Hill told us in October. “… 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.”
Mayor Lisa Larsen, reached by phone Tuesday morning, said she was not aware of the plans to clear the camp until she heard from a community member on Monday.
She said the city is trying to stay in line with permit requirements for the North Lawrence campsite.
“The variance holds that if we have spaces within the community, such as the Winter Emergency Shelter, then we have to scale back on the camping” at the site, Larsen said. “… We’re trying to, again, make sure folks have a warm place to stay at night.”
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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.