Advocates concerned about city leaning on unpaid work from resident of North Lawrence campsite

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Stowed away in Jennifer Adams’ tent at the North Lawrence campsite for people experiencing homelessness is an accordion file folder filled with city documents: 112 program agreements signed by current and former camp residents, all of them notated by Adams. 

Months ago, Adams found the accordion folder in the trash, and she’s used it to organize the program agreements for each of the people she’s checked in since the city put the support site in place on Oct. 1.

The task of checking people in — like many other duties, such as de-escalating problems, organizing cleanup crews, serving as a liaison to the police, receiving and distributing donations equitably, and trespassing people when they violate the contracts secured in her tent — falls on Adams. 

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City staff members are responsible for most of these things, including check-ins, according to Porter Arneill, a spokesperson for the city.

Some people staying at the support site found that perplexing. 

“When city staff come in … they’re never here to do anything. They go in the trailers, take a look around, and of course stand around and talk to each other. That’s it,” Adams said. 

‘A link between the site and city employees’

Jenn Wolsey, former homeless programs coordinator for the city, said she was aware of the city’s dependency on Adams, and she advocated that the city pay her. 

For the moment, the city agreed. 

The city acknowledged Adams’ contributions at the support site and cut her a check for $2,500 in mid-November to reflect “the city’s appreciation for the efforts” she made to the site, according to a memo.

“City employees are not present at the support site around the clock but remain on call to respond to needs at the site as they arise,” the memo stated. “Jennifer Adams, an individual staying at the support site, volunteered to provide a link between the site and City employees.”

Adams — known to residents as the “camp mom” — assists city employees with camper registrations, conflict resolution, supply disbursement, and site monitoring, the memo says. It also lists Adams as a link to city employees when there is an issue that requires city involvement.

“City employees feel very strongly that the city should recognize Ms. Adams’ contributions to help maintain the support site,” the memo states.

Danelle Walters, Housing Initiatives Division manager, wrote the memo, which advocated for a one-time grant rather than an employee/employer relationship. But Adams said Walters and Wolsey communicated the arrangement to her as an ongoing one.

“I was told I would get paid once a month, but it would (accumulate each) week because I’m pretty much on call 24/7,” Adams said. 

On a recent cold night, for example, Adams was roused from her tent at 3:30 a.m. by another camp resident who needed propane. Adams unzipped her tent and stepped outside. It was below freezing and the 15 mph wind bit her cheeks as she shuffled to the tent to refill the tank, because if she wasn’t going to do it, “who would?” she thought. 

Arneill and Walters had not responded to an email question about Adams’ recounting of the financial arrangement as of publication time.

Wolsey, who resigned from her position with the city in early January, said she advocated for paying Adams as long as the city was reliant upon her to run the camp while it was understaffed. 

And the city’s need for Adams to help manage the camp continued well after the November memo: Adams was the one to discover and notify the city twice when camp residents died, on Nov. 21 and Dec. 30. 

“Shit happens out there,” Wolsey said. “Two people died out there. If Jen had not been there then who knows how much longer it would have taken for Susan to be found. … If Jen had not been there then I would not have been called when Tony was found dead.” 

Adams has not received more than the one-time payment. For comparison, if the one-time payment were disbursed over the four months that the campsite has been open and Adams had been working at a rate of 40 hours per week, it equates to about $3.57 an hour. 

Lack of city staff 

Since its inception, the support camp has been understaffed. The lack of staffing was among points of contention between Wolsey and city management, but the city did not regularly embed workers other than Wolsey at the support site. 

In a recent written response to interview questions, Arneill wrote that “The City provides the facilities, and we rely on partner agencies to provide social services and support. The City of Lawrence is not the provider of mental health, addiction or other social services at City-supported emergency shelter facilities; rather, the City relies on dedicated community partners who have the expertise and resources available to support unsheltered individuals in need.” 

“Staff didn’t necessarily need to be providing the social work stuff. I’m not saying that,” Wolsey said. “But I mean, at this point, without having staff there, how do you even know if your service providers are there?” 

The support site is intended to be a hub so other agencies can locate clients and provide social services. Without city staff at the camp or distributing food donations brought to the Winter Emergency Shelter, the agencies that provide services — such as Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center’s homeless outreach team — sometimes have to help people fetch food rather than, say, mental health care or identification documents to find jobs or housing.

“Let’s have support staff helping to bring in donations coming in, so that when the social workers do come out there, they can work on helping someone get their ID instead of trying to help them get some food,” Wolsey said. 

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‘Why would we not pay them?’

Without extra staff at the support site, Wolsey looked at peer models that hired people with lived experience. 

“Where we normally say your experience is your downfall, (the peer model) changes the focus and says, ‘Yeah, your experiences have been hard but your experiences are worth something, because you can use your experiences to help other people along the way and guide them,’” Wolsey said. “(Peers) are naturally already doing this. So why would we not pay them to do it if we’re paying workers to go out there and do the same thing?” 

Wolsey said she thought the peer position could fill a void, and potentially rotate from one peer leader to another. 

As long as the city was relying on specific leaders within the homeless community, such as Adams, Wolsey believed the city should pay them. 

Howard Callihan, homeless outreach case manager for Bert Nash, watches Adams provide services to camp residents each week while he does his outreach work. 

“Jenn Adams is doing the same job I did when I worked at the (Lawrence Community Shelter) with less support, harder, for no money,” Callihan said. “She is being taken advantage of.”

Advocate Kevin Elliott-Snow said Adams is basically a manager for the support site. He rattled off a lengthy list of duties he’s seen Adams perform — she receives, stores and distributes community donations seven days a week; keeps a list of camp needs; helps set up and fix tents; gets assistance for sick or troubled camp residents; directs them to Bert Nash, he said.

“I can go on and on,” he said. “Jenn runs the camp and the city should be paying her.”

The city’s recent efforts 

On Thursday, the city acknowledged that it has “identified service gaps in the supportive camp program” in an item added to Tuesday’s Lawrence City Commission agenda

“We are recruiting additional employees to provide a more consistent staff presence at the camp site,” the item reads. 

The city on Jan. 27 posted the homeless programs coordinator position to its jobs site — the position Wolsey held until early January — and on Friday, it posted a support site/Winter Emergency Shelter monitor position.

The city recently assigned a Parks and Rec worker to monitor the support camp, then later pulled him from the site. It hasn’t yet replaced him.

“He didn’t do anything but sit in his car and play on his phone,” Adams said.

The memo to the city commission states that consistent staff presence will clarify “camp check-in procedures, camp site rules, receiving donations, distributing supplies, providing security for camp residents, assisting camp residents with basic logistical and resource needs, and communication with camp residents” — mostly things Adams has done since Oct. 1. 

The memo also states that “Individuals interested in utilizing the supportive camp site should contact the City’s Homeless Programs Team to receive check-in instructions, a participant expectations agreement, a tent and a personal storage container. The Homeless Programs Team can be contacted by emailing homelessprograms@lawrenceks.org or calling, during business hours, (785) 813-9483.” However, many people needing sanctuary camping do not have consistent access to a phone or internet service. 

‘They’d rather give the job I’ve been doing to someone else’

The description for the support site/Winter Emergency Shelter monitor job states that the person hired will oversee, arrange, monitor and supervise the support site and shelter managed by the city’s Housing Initiatives Division. 

“Monitors will need to gain and maintain healthy relationships with site residents. Monitors will also be expected to accept, manage, and disperse donations and supplies to residents,” the job posting states.

“Applicants desired to have at least one year of college course work in human services or one year experience within the human services field. All applicants must be certified or willing to become certified in first aid, CPR, and AED within 30 days of hiring. Training will be provided if needed. Must provide own means of transportation to and from site daily and must pass a background check.”

Adams said she doesn’t begrudge the duties that have fallen upon her — just the fact she is no longer paid for doing them. She said that if the city is recruiting for the position she’s already completing, why not hire her for the job? 

“They’d rather give the job I’ve been doing to someone else than hire a homeless woman,” Adams said.

Arneill and Walters did not respond by publication time to a question about whether the city would consider hiring a camp resident to work on the ground at the campsite.

Last weekend, Adams found a pregnant woman and her partner sleeping on the cold ground without a tent by a dying fire.

She gave the couple a space to sleep and helped them assemble their own tent when they had trouble doing it alone.

There were no city workers at the support site to check the couple in, so Adams did it, tucking the contract agreement carefully into her accordion file — just in case the city ever needs it. 

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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.

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