Over a span of five days, people living outside at the city-sanctioned campsite in North Lawrence were told they would soon need to move; then the city reversed course and said they could stay until mid-March.
In addition to the emotional rollercoaster the ordeal brought for residents of the camp behind Johnny’s Tavern, it has also raised questions from members of the public about how these decisions have been made behind closed doors.
City management says it was a staff mistake that eviction notices were posted before the city informed the public of the plan to close the camp — that Jenn Wolsey, homeless programs coordinator for the Housing Initiatives Division, inadvertently posted the notices on campers’ tents before the plan to close down the campsite was shared publicly.
Some campers say Wolsey posted the notices intentionally to give them as much time as possible to prepare to move, because in the past, city staff members have given as little as 24 hours to leave city property.
City Manager Craig Owens said Thursday that he did not know last week about city staff’s decision to close the campsite and direct residents to the Winter Emergency Shelter. Normally, Owens would have reviewed a decision of this nature, but Wolsey lurched into action after a staff meeting before Owens was shown the plan, according to city staff.
“This was not anything anybody wanted to see happen. This is new space and we are going to make mistakes. We center the people that we’re trying to help on everything we do, and we will continue to do that,” Owens said. “In this case, execution got ahead of the planning and that’s not what we want to see happen on any of our operations. In this case, it had a tragic impact on some people and we want to — we’re trying hard to correct that.”
Jennifer Adams, or “Mama Jenn,” who stays at the campsite in North Lawrence, and others at the site are now concerned that Wolsey will not return to the camp.
“If we’re gonna lose Jenn, that’s a hell of a consequence,” Adams said.
Wolsey has not resigned, or been terminated or reassigned, said Porter Arneill, a spokesperson for the city.
Reached by phone Thursday evening, Wolsey declined to discuss the specifics of what has transpired, but did say that “We need to continue to do better, and they deserve more.”
Last Thursday and Friday, Dec. 8 and 9, a group of city staff had Zoom meetings to establish how they would redirect people from the North Lawrence camp to the Winter Emergency Shelter, Arneill said.
The meetings included Diane Stoddard, assistant city manager; Danelle Walters, housing initiatives manager; Jeff Crick, director of planning and development services; Cicely Thornton, homeless programs project specialist; and Arneill. Initially, Wolsey was not a part of the meeting, but she was invited to join before much conversation occurred, Arneill said.
Staff discussed pros and cons for both closing and maintaining the support site, deciding in the end that it would be safer for the camp’s inhabitants to be inside throughout winter, Walters said.
“The support site was always a very temporary short-term idea, knowing that we were going to be moving into Winter Emergency Shelter,” Walters said. “Obviously with the new territory we were in we had no idea how many folks we were going to have there on Dec. 1 (when the WES opened). As we got closer to that date, and we were seeing the numbers there, we realized that we (could) get everybody inside.”
Stoddard said the group intended to notify Owens of the plan to close the camp and to inform the public, and she thinks “we just got out of sync with the actions and the communications.”
“That was an error within our team, because we had full intention of communicating this (to the city commission, camp residents and public),” Stoddard said. “And that was unfortunate that that didn’t occur. And that’s what we’re taking responsibility for, it not occurring the way that it should have.”
After Friday’s meeting, Wolsey printed a template that the city had used in the past, Arneill said. She wrote dates in blanks on the forms, giving a batch of 10 to 15 campers five days to leave the property. Some could stay longer, and the last eviction date was set for Jan. 15.
City staff did not decide how much time they would give campers to vacate before Wolsey posted the notices, Arneill said.
Arneill said historically, officials would demand people camping illegally leave city property within 48 hours, and sometimes 72. Whenever it receives a complaint about people camping at parks, the city gives 24 hours to vacate.
Adams said Wolsey posted the notices before a public announcement to try to give campers a little more time. The notices last week provided campers at least five days, with other notices staggered to direct groups of campers to leave by Jan. 15.
“Enough that they had more time to get their shit together to say their goodbyes, you know. Be ready to get themselves ready to go to the shelter,” Adams said.
Transparency of camp decisions
The plan to close the camp did not need to go before the Lawrence City Commission — HID does not require commissioner oversight on its decisions, though it does intermittently provide updates on its progress and setbacks.
Staff members are able to make many decisions about homelessness initiatives without city commission approval as long as they follow existing ordinances.
From the time the plans for the camp initially came to fruition in September through the evictions and reversal within the past week, it has only appeared on city commission agendas twice (1, 2), and neither time required commissioners to vote on anything.
However, the subject of the camp — after the decisions have already been made — has occupied hours of public comment over the past few months.
“Who made this decision?” one community member asked city commissioners about the evictions on Tuesday. “… 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?”
Owens said more than 800 city staff members make decisions daily without commission approval, and mostly, no one cares. It’s protocol.
But he and other city staff members are discovering that decisions on houselessness might require more diligent communication with the public, he said. Sometimes HID staff become so immersed in doing that communication suffers.
“Over and over and over again, we pick doing and then the communication trips us up, so we’ve got to pull back on the doing, and this is a prime example. We pull all our doers off of doing so they can deal with crisis and communicate … because we didn’t communicate proactively,” he said.
Commissioner Amber Sellers, reached by phone Friday, agreed with Owens’ take that staff needs to make decisions on homelessness under the light of the governing body.
Because the support camp is directly linked to housing, a goal of the city’s strategic plan, it merits significant attention from city commissioners and communication with the public — before, not after, decisions are made, she said.
“We have a community that we need to inform and understand about … how do we face this head-on and not continue to try to push into the fray?” Sellers said.
She said that the way the decision unfolded created a trauma that “none of us could imagine.”
“I can’t promise that, you know, missteps won’t happen again, because this is new territory for us,” she continued. “But I hope that we have learned enough from this process that we will do as much of the risk management mitigation as possible, so that we don’t do something that creates trauma, as I know this has done.”
Mayor Lisa Larsen and Commissioner Brad Finkeldei did not respond to calls seeking comment for this article Friday.
Vance Swallow, a veteran and resident of the camp, said he was able to stay at a hotel for a few days last week, and he was not present when HID distributed the eviction notices. When he returned Sunday he saw that his tent had been damaged and the neighboring tents had been abandoned or removed. He only had three days to leave, but he said he was mostly concerned about where the others had gone.
“They were localized here. Counselors know where they were at,” Swallow said. “Now the counselors are coming in asking, ‘Where are they?’ I don’t know. They’re scattered all over in bushes and trees.”
“We had them going, people were finding houses,” he continued. “We had three people who actually found an apartment because they were able to get their stuff together, see their counselors, see everybody here. They were able to keep clean, get help, water, food and everything and they can’t get it now. … We’re starting all over again.”
Those who did leave the camp may return, Arneill confirmed Friday.
But Swallow lamented the fact that the people who left had minimal means to learn about the city’s reversal — most don’t have cell phones or internet access, and there’s no way for them to learn that the campsite is sanctioned again.
Owens said that Wolsey and other members of HID will still be committed to providing services and outreach to all the camps in town, including the North Lawrence site.
HID has a three-prong focus: aid the folks at the support site, service the WES, and build a plan that leads people to permanent housing. Closing the camp might have enabled HID to funnel more energy into the housing component, but Owens said city staff is figuring out a way to work on all three initiatives within its existing budget.
“We’re going to figure out a way to successfully do all three of those things, but it’s going to be a heavy lift — it always was, and we really need the community to engage in supporting us and that may just be cheering us on,” Owens said. “It certainly will always be to hold us accountable, but it also needs to be giving us some patience and time as we continue to do this really hard work, because we’re doing it for the people that are in a really difficult circumstance.”
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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.