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City to keep North Lawrence camp for people experiencing homelessness open

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Post last updated at 5:49 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 14:

After hearing concerns from dozens of community members Tuesday night, the City of Lawrence announced Wednesday that the North Lawrence camp for people experiencing homelessness will remain open for the winter.

Staff members from the city’s Homeless Initiatives Division started distributing eviction notices to people staying at the campsite behind Johnny’s Tavern on Friday. Some residents of the camp pleaded with the city commissioners Tuesday to reverse the staff decision, but the commission took no action

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In a Wednesday news release, the city said it is committing to keep the site open through March 12, 2023, giving people a choice between the campsite and the downtown Winter Emergency Shelter.

“We understand that people have individual needs and we will work to accommodate the variety of needs of those experiencing homelessness. This has and will continue to drive our decisions,” the city said in a news release. “With our recent effort to get people to warmer and safer environments, we recognize that we lost sight of this guiding principle.”

“We also erred in not communicating significant changes to our programs and approach in advance,” the release continued. “We apologize for the concerns this created and we appreciate that people communicated their concerns to us. Our team is working hard and has the best intentions to help the most vulnerable members of our community. This is complex and difficult work that requires ongoing evaluation and adjustments as we go. Though we understand that this mistake damaged trust, we hope our consistent progress ― driven by our values ― will be evident over time and earn back the trust of those we are serving and the community members who are critical to our success.”

The city in a news release Tuesday morning attributed the decision to start evicting residents from the camp to city staff in general and 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 Tuesday’s 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.” 

August Rudisell/Lawrence Times Several tents were disassembled or removed from the City of Lawrence-sanctioned campsite in North Lawrence by the evening of Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2022. The city issued many residents eviction notices on Friday with the intent to close the camp by mid-January, but staff members reversed course on that plan Wednesday.

On Wednesday, the city said that staff will prioritize supporting the WES and continuing efforts to determine the next steps to establish a longer-term support site, or sites, by the time the WES and the North Lawrence campsite are scheduled to cease operations on March 12.

“We are also evaluating budget resources to ensure that we can adequately support these ambitious new programs,” according to the release. “We know our community is committed to affordable housing. Ongoing community support is necessary and appreciated as we continue this challenging work.”

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We have requested an interview with Lawrence City Manager Craig Owens. 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, among other questions.

The city began directing people to the North Lawrence site in September. The prospect raised concerns for some of the people who were already living at the site in a small group — and Jennifer Adams, known as the “camp mom,” told commissioners Tuesday that the camp did get off to a rocky start.

But in the time since, “They’re actually coming from being hermits to — they’ve bonded, and we’ve built a community out there,” Adams told commissioners of fellow camp residents. “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.”

Lawrence Times TV got an inside look at the camp and interviewed some of the residents last month. See the video at this link.

August Rudisell/Lawrence Times Lawrence community members overflow the City Commission meeting room on Dec. 13, 2022.
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Share this post or save for later

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