Thirty people pleaded with city commissioners at their meeting Tuesday to reverse a staff decision to close the camp in North Lawrence for people experiencing homelessness. City commissioners did nothing in response.
The Homeless Initiatives Division, a group of nonelected city staff members, started distributing eviction notices to people staying at the support site behind Johnny’s Tavern on Friday.
The city in a news release Tuesday morning attributed the move to city staff in general and has made it unclear exactly how the decision to clear the camp was made.
“It was done on the weekend, mostly completed before the City Commission met this evening, so the city once again has a major lack of transparency and a lack of interest in community feedback,” Kevin Elliott, an advocate for the homeless, said during public comment at the commission meeting. “I’m very disappointed. I’m also very shocked and surprised when I spoke to three of the commissioners who will remain unnamed and they were completely unaware of this. So apparently city staff is moving without communicating properly with leadership.”
Many public commenters criticized city staff members’ ability to make such an impactful decision before receiving citizen feedback or consulting elected city leaders.
“Who made this decision?” one public commenter asked. “… What is going to be done in the future to prevent this kind of decision from being made and executed without having an opportunity for public comment? … How was this decided on and executed without the City Commission being notified? And what’s going to prevent that from being an issue in the future for other very important things that affect our most vulnerable community members?”
But from the time the camp was first under consideration, opened, and now closing, city commissioners have not had the opportunity to vote on agenda items connected to the camp. All of the moves have been made at the staff level. There was no agenda item for the commission to consider Tuesday, either.
The only related ordinance the commission has voted on was the one that legalized camping in downtown commercial districts when no emergency shelter space is available — back in June 2020.
The city said Tuesday that closing the camp is in part to refocus resources at the Winter Emergency Shelter, which is held at the Community Building, 115 W. 11th St. It’s open from 8 p.m. to 7 a.m., and people experiencing houselessness can sleep on a thin mat in the open gym during those hours. The shelter relies heavily on volunteers to function.
Some people on Tuesday criticized how the city is utilizing HID employees in handling homelessness.
“The winter shelter is not appropriate, and relying on more and more volunteer work — unpaid labor from the community — is also not what we talked about when we put those three positions in the budget to specifically address housing and housing services,” said Melinda Lavon, a Lawrence community member and activist.
Some people experiencing homelessness have said they feel safer at the WES, but many camp residents have said they don’t want to go to there for various reasons, despite the cold weather. Some of those reasons include that their pets must stay in a different room, and there are no partitions between strangers sleeping there. In addition, any belongings they bring with them are limited to a 30-gallon storage tub and locked away in a separate room.
Some residents of the camp pleaded with the city commissioners Tuesday to reverse the staff decision because of what the camp has done for the people living there.
Jennifer Adams, known as the “camp mom,” said the campsite started out rocky, but now people are figuring out what it takes to “get back to life and to go back inside.” She said there won’t be another shot.
“They’re actually coming from being hermits to — they’ve bonded, and we’ve built a community out there,” Adams told commissioners. “When one person starts to go down, everybody’s there to help build it back up. We don’t leave anybody to just deal. And by closing this down, you’re destroying all that’s been built.”
Timothy Olson, a recent former resident of the camp, said he finally got into housing on Monday, but he couldn’t enjoy it “because this hurts me as much as if I was out there.”
Another resident of the camp said he “just would appreciate if you maybe put yourselves in our shoes before you made these decisions for us.” And another broke down in tears talking about how “so many amazing people” at the camp who “really have nothing” have helped him.
The commission took a 10-minute break after a little more than an hour of public comment, then moved on to the rest of the agenda.
Toward the end of the meeting, during commission items, Vice Mayor Bart Littlejohn encouraged people to volunteer at the WES and to “go ahead and help your fellow person” in any way you can. He said he thinks this time of year, some folks “don’t necessarily feel seen and don’t necessarily feel loved. So if you can do that, contribute in any way you can, I think it will go a long way.”
Otherwise, commissioners did not address the local homelessness crisis or those who spoke about the camp.
Members of the Housing Initiatives Division have not returned our emails or calls inquiring about how the decision to evict people from the North Lawrence site was made or how HID will be able to service the people who start unsanctioned camps once they’re required to leave. The last date that any of the campers are sanctioned to stay is Jan. 15.
The Lawrence City Commission has at times asked further questions or directed staff to take action based on public comments during meetings about things that weren’t on the agenda, including in November, when a local business owner had raised concerns about safety issues at the camp.
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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.