Jenn Wolsey: Our unsheltered neighbors in the Lawrence community deserve better (Column)

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Note: The Lawrence Times runs opinion columns and letters to the Times written by community members with varying perspectives on local issues. These pieces do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Times staff.

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Note from the Times: The City of Lawrence recently posted notices directing residents of a campsite in North Lawrence for people experiencing homelessness to move from the site, then reversed those plans. In addition to the emotional rollercoaster the ordeal brought for residents of the camp, it has raised questions about decisions made behind closed doors.

City administrators during an interview last week shared their account of how these decisions were made and how communication issues arose. See more coverage at the links at the bottom of this post, and more coverage of homelessness and housing issues at this link.

Jenn Wolsey is homeless programs coordinator for the city. She regularly works directly with community members experiencing homelessness who stay at the North Lawrence site and elsewhere in town. Reached for comment last week, she declined to discuss the specifics of what had happened, but she wrote this column (which has not been reviewed by city staff) on Sunday to share her perspective.

This week I have felt heartbroken, silenced, wronged, and very isolated. I do though recognize no matter how bad I have been made to feel, this is nowhere in comparison to how much trauma was caused to our unsheltered neighbors. For this I apologize.

This is what I would like people to know:

1. Housing is a human right.

2. Those who are homeless are people with hopes, dreams, aspirations, and potential. They thrive on community the same as you and me. Please do not see them and just define them based on stereotypes, stigma, and fear.

3. Living outside would cause anyone to develop maladaptive coping skills. Housing folks is and always will be step one.

4. I have spent many years and brain power to learn the things I know. I know this work because I invested the strength to learn it. Being dismissed is hard.

5. It was my request and recommendation to develop an approved place where individuals could camp without the fear of being displaced. I asked for electricity, water, better tents, several different locations, staff, more community and supportive service there to help. I was not provided all I was asked for, so I kept moving forward. Something was better than nothing.

6. I put my all into this support site. I was out there almost every day, working 10-12 hours a day to make it work. When it rained, I was out there with the people. When the wind was ferocious and tearing up folks’ tents, I was out there with these people. When it was freezing, I was out there with these people. My favorite days were the days the sun was out, and we would all stand out there and sing! For those who are worried about how long I spent out there, I am salary, so there was never any overtime pay for me. I was out there not because it was my job but because this is my mission.

7. Even with limited resources, the houseless folks built a community at the support site with each other and others throughout the community who took the time to go out and meet them, learn about them, help them. That place, though very messy, also was absolutely beautiful. It was never perfect, but the world is imperfect, so yes, we were making it work.

8. We faced many heartbreaks at this site, but we did it together. We lost Susan [Ford], and though I would never want anyone to die living outside in a tent, I knew Susan did not die feeling alone. Susan died in a community where people loved her and truly saw her.

9. Were there days I wanted to give up on this site? Hell yes! Would I have ever given up? Hell no!

10. My plan and hope was to keep the support site until March 12 because I knew this community needed it. I am out there every day walking alongside these people and see the true number of folks who are living unsheltered. I have been doing what I always told you all I would do; I have been working hard to bring forth the longer-term solutions in which folks at the Support Site and those in other encampments through town could transition to when that March 12 date comes along.

11. I know we do not have enough indoor shelter beds to meet the full number, even by adding 75 Winter Emergency Shelter spaces or opening a 40-space overflow. I have always been very open and transparent about our lack of resources. I still, though, have been and will encourage folks to use the Winter Emergency Shelter spaces because when it gets super cold outside, being indoors is safer than being in a tent. I care immensely about these people’s safety.

12. Even before Dec. 1 [when the shelter opened], I was speaking with folks about what possible transitions to the Winter Emergency Shelter would look like. I educated them around the ordinance and was very clear that changes would happen but never did I fully believe those changes would include closing down the Support Site completely before March 12. On Dec. 1, I served dinner at the Support Site and reminded them all this may be our last meal with all of us together in this space but it did not mean we would not always be family. I reminded them all how amazing they each are and that I loved them. 

13. For the first week the Winter Emergency Shelter was open, we did not start the process of transitioning folks. We wanted to allow volunteers at the Winter Emergency Shelter to get their footing. We also wanted to sit back and see how many folks would go to the Winter Shelter from the support site and other encampments on their own, without promptings from us. In this first week, the highest usage night was 38, and most of these folks were from other encampments around town and not from the support site. This worried us because it confirmed what we knew, and that was that there would not be enough shelter spaces.

14. It is absolutely against my value system to force a person to do anything against their will. I respect and believe in a person’s right to autonomy, even if their choices for themselves look different then what I would choose. I never told anyone they had to go to the winter shelter, I just reminded them that we were moving into a space where camping in the place we were at in the support site may no longer be available to everyone. I had been sharing this reality since the conception of the support site and continue to share this message with those staying at the support site now because I know this is where these folks live, and they have the right to be provided the truth about things that impact their lives.

15. On Wednesday, Dec. 7, I spoke to three of my supervisors in a meeting, including Diane Stoddard from the city manager’s office. It was at this meeting I was advised that city leadership had decided to move forward in shutting the site down as soon as possible. The reasons given were:

A. The Winter Shelter was open and therefore shelter spaces were available, since it had yet to reach capacity.

B. I needed to be pulled from the site to start to put all my energy and focus into implementing the work needed to get the longer plans in operation before the March 12 date, when the Winter Shelter will close. They knew that support site could not operate successfully if I was no longer there and we have no one on the team who could take my place out there.

Even after hearing these reasons, I advocated for the support site to remain open on a condensed scale. I provided valid reasoning. I presented a plan on how we could keep it open with staff, while still allowing me to be reassigned. I warned them of the backlash and trauma this would cause. In the end, though, my advocacy and recommendation were overruled by those in power above me. I was told it was going to be shut down, so at the very least I asked it to be shut down in the most dignified way allowed.

16. On Thursday, Dec. 8, we held a follow-up meeting around moving forward with closing the support site as soon as possible. On this day, I again attempted to share all the things that did not make sense in shutting this site down and all the issues we would run into. Again, I was overruled. I left that meeting early telling them they all better get in front of this because it was going to be a mess. I left with the knowledge that we were moving forward.

17. Later on Thursday, Dec. 8, I became aware of another follow-up meeting scheduled for Friday, Dec. 9, to discuss this topic. This meeting had been scheduled after I had left the earlier meeting that day. I also discovered I was purposely asked to be left out of the meeting scheduled for Dec. 9 by leadership. Upon finding this out, I was shocked and extremely frustrated. I spoke to my supervisors about my frustration.

18. It had already been planned for me to go out on Thursday, Dec. 8 to start a phased approach of providing official notifications to the campers at the support site and start the transition process of shutting it down. I had asked to be the person who led this transition because though I did not agree with it, I wanted it to be done with as much dignity as possible and these people deserved to get the final news from me. After I found out about the Friday, Dec. 9 meeting that I would not be a part of and confronted leadership about it, I advised leadership I would hold off going out to start the transition on that day but instead I would start it on Friday after they completed their meeting, again, that I had not been invited to.

19. On Dec. 9, I received a message from leadership while they were in that meeting, asking me to join. I put my pride aside and joined the meeting. I have no idea what was spoken about the first 40 minutes I was not present. I do know I advised them all again in that meeting, that again if the decision was to move forward in closing the site, the folks out there deserved to be notified as soon as possible and therefore an official announcement needed to go out that day because I would be starting the notifications that day. No one told me to wait, no one told me “no.” I left that meeting with the understanding that an announcement would go out that day and I would also be starting notifications that day.

20. By 2 p.m. Dec. 9, nothing had gone out as an official announcement. I wrote a draft announcement up as a template to be considered and then emailed it to leadership. I heard nothing back. I waited until 5 p.m. to hear something about an official announcement, but nothing came. So I did what I said I was going to do and leadership knew I was going to do. I went to the site and started posting and providing notifications. I purposely posted tents of folks that I knew had other places to go or had already moved but had left their stuff. One of these postings was of a tent that belonged to a person we had already moved into housing that very day. I was very calculated with how this transition was going to happen in a way that would negatively impact folks as little as possible.

I also did not just post notifications and leave; I spoke to everyone I could directly, because they all deserve respect.

21. I completely admit and acknowledge that I changed the notification time to a minimum of 72 hours notice of cleanup from what the city normally provided. The city has always previously used and continued to use in most recent cleanups a minimum of 24 hours of notice for cleanup. I was determined we would give more time.

22. Is this what I wanted to do? No! Is this within my value system? No! Was this what my recommendations were? No! Was this going to happen with or without me? Yes!

23. Was it ever mentioned in any of these meetings mentioned above that there was a plan to bring in the city commissioners to help guide this decision to shut the site down? No!

24. I never provided these notices and then just disappeared. I was back out there on both Saturday and Sunday helping the folks we were able to move into the Lawrence Community Shelter get moved over. I continued to do what I always did … I went out there to be with these people.

25. Starting last Monday, Dec. 12, I sat back in horror as certain city leadership started the process of deflecting and acting as if I just decided to go rogue. My question is what would have been my motivation for going rogue and acting on my own? I had already shown how much I care about this population, so why now would I act in a way that would hurt them?

26. I openly admit, I am the one who drove some of these campers to the Lawrence City Commission meeting on Tuesday, Dec. 13 to allow their voices to be heard. This was not the first time I had done this. It is actually something I commonly do, whether homelessness is a hot topic for the week or not. I knew they were rightfully mad and hurt. I knew they likely were going to speak out against me as well. None of that mattered! I have always pushed to elevate the voices of our lived experts experiencing homelessness because, again, every decision made (good or bad) directly impacts them. I never try to persuade or guide whatever message they share with the commissioners. All I ever remind them is their voices matter and they have a right to be heard, whatever it is they want to speak about.

Following on Thursday, Dec. 15, I was given a warning by leadership for using my personal vehicle to get these folks to this meeting so they could have their voices heard. Again, everyone knew I always did this, so why was I now being corrected?

27. I sat back all week long taking shots from many in the community and continued to give city leadership the opportunity to do what was right, and thankfully they did by agreeing on Wednesday, Dec. 14 to stop their movement in closing down the site and agreed to leave it open until March 12 as originally planned.

27. Last week, my integrity, values, education, and experience were all questioned. I was hopeful that on Thursday, Dec. 15, after my meeting with City Manager Craig Owens, that the truth (the whole truth) would be presented. That we would all admit to our mistakes, and commit to doing better. Unfortunately instead, city leadership decided to continue to stand on this false message and report to the media that I went rogue and acted out of step.

28. Since the announcement from the city on Wednesday, Dec. 14, that the support site would remain open, I have received no guidance from leadership on next steps.

A. Am I supposed to move forward in the plan I presented them on Dec. 7 when I asked them to keep it open? If I am, then I will need staff.

B. Am I still supposed to even be operating and still be present at this site? If so, I need to know at what capacity.

C. Are we still working on condensing the space?

D. Will we move back to accepting new admissions again?

E. How are we supposed to manage and respond to tents that get torn up by weather? Are we at the city replacing, or allowing folks to set up their own tents?

F. Are the expectations we had set up before this all happened still in place, or is this now just a place where people are allowed to camp?

I have no idea, have been provided no guidance, but have been told I am not to make any steps without guidance. At the same time, we continue to have folks trying to survive out there with no true guidance, either, or understanding of what is expected from them.

This work I do is much different then a lot of the work other city employees do. My work is no more or less important. My work, though, works directly with the most vulnerable and marginalized people in our community, day in and day out. Therefore taking a pause with no guidance is not an option.

Where do I go from here?

Honestly, I don’t know. This has been a shitty couple of weeks. Do I stay or do I go? I don’t know! Will I be even allowed to stay? I don’t know! Do I even want to stay if this is how I and others will be treated? I don’t know!

What I do know is what I want to finish this message with:

I did not act without direction. I did not think the site should be shut down completely but instead condensed and remain open until March 12, as we told the community. I recommended an alternative plan and again was not heard. Therefore, I did all I could do the best I could with what I was being instructed to do. The city commissioners did not know leadership’s plan to shut the site down, but the city manager’s office certainly did because they are the ones who made and approved the choice.

I am sorry for the part I played in all of this. I am sorry that I allowed myself to move away from my personal values and what I know to be best practice. Constantly making people move around, displacing them, actually prolongs a person’s time in homelessness and is not the solution.

I had some big hopes for this community and some pretty big plans in how to get us to Functional Zero. My heart is broken for all that happened, some for me but mostly for those living unsheltered.

For those questioning my motives and my values in this, please do not judge me based on what has happened in the last two weeks but instead what you have seen me do and stand up for in the last six months since starting in this role. 

I don’t know if this is a goodbye at this time, but I do know I wanted the full truth to come out because this community deserves transparency. I messed up. The city messed up. We need to do better. Our unsheltered neighbors deserve better.

— Jenn Wolsey (she/her) is homeless programs coordinator for the City of Lawrence’s Housing Initiatives Division. (This piece represents Wolsey’s views and not necessarily those of the city.)

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