City thanks resident of North Lawrence camp for managing site, says staff will now take over

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Jenn Wolsey and some community members experiencing houselessness staged an impromptu quiet protest at City Hall during the city commission’s Tuesday meeting. 

Wolsey, former homeless programs coordinator for the city, decided to serve food to unhoused and housed community members during the meeting time, saying she hoped to bring homelessness to the forefront of city leaders’ minds through the silent demonstration.

The triggering event for the sit-in was the city’s decision to formally terminate Jennifer Adams’ city-sanctioned leadership role at the support camp. Adams, known as the “camp mom,” has been assisting with management of the camp since it opened in early October. 

“Jenn Adams and her volunteer service filled an important need, but the management of the city campsite needs to be done by the city,” Brandon McGuire, assistant city manager, said Thursday. 

On Tuesday afternoon, city staff hand-delivered a letter to Adams saying she would receive a final check for her volunteer service at the support camp. Staff members verbally thanked her for her contributions, but also said the city did not need her help with the camp, Adams said. 

August Rudisell/Lawrence Times Jenn Wolsey, left, former homeless programs coordinator for the city of Lawrence, serves up a meal at City Hall on Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2023.

Adams served as the volunteer “onsite person” during overnights, and the “peer support” leader at the camp, according to Wolsey and city emails written by Danelle Walters, housing initiatives manager. 

Adams feels she was fired, but she never signed an employment agreement with the city as it never offered her an official job. 

The city cut Adams a check for $2,500 in mid-November to reflect “the city’s appreciation for the efforts” she made to the site over the course of five weeks, according to a memo written by Walters, but it has not paid her since. 

Adams said she understood the payment arrangement was supposed to be continual. We could find no written documentation to indicate city leaders ever pledged to keep paying her. 

As we reported Monday, community members and advocates recently expressed concern about how the city has leaned on Adams for mostly unpaid work in the time since that payment. Wolsey, who resigned from her position with the city in early January, said she had advocated for paying Adams as long as the city was reliant upon her to run the camp while it was understaffed. She had looked at peer models that hired people with lived experience, and she thought the peer position could fill a void, and potentially rotate from one peer leader to another. 

Chansi Long/Lawrence Times Jennifer Adams holds an accordion folder of agreements signed by folks staying at the North Lawrence campsite for people experiencing homelessness.

McGuire said the peer model has merits but is not something the city has the capacity to provide. No city employee is knowledgeable enough to execute a program of that nature at this time, he said. 

Moving forward, the city plans to assign city staff at the campsite daily for up to six hours a day, seven days a week, McGuire said. Staff will also be responsible for accepting and distributing donations. 

The letter provided to Adams on Tuesday, referring back to November, states that “city staff did not foresee the need for Ms. Adams to continue assisting with operations moving forward as she had been in the previous five weeks to that time.”

“The City’s desire for paid staff and monitoring at the site moving forward … was planned to ease the dependency on Ms. Adams for assistance in monitoring the site when staff was not present,” the letter continues. 

“Subsequent changes in operations of the site, city staffing changes and issues in gaining interest in (its) application for employment for these positions made it so that Ms. Adams continued to work at the site past the original November date,” the letter says. 

Because Adams assisted city employees with camper registrations, conflict resolutions, supply disbursement, and site monitoring, city staff “feels the City should recognize Ms. Adams continued contributions to help maintain the support site,” the letter reads. “The Housing Initiatives Division is not recommending an employee/employer relationship with Ms. Adams, but it is recommending the approval of a final payment to thank her for the time she has volunteered at the site.” 

The city had advertised a position of monitor for the Winter Emergency Shelter but not for the support site during that time, however. 

The letter did not include a check but said that staff submitted an invoice of $6,200 that “reflects the city’s appreciation for Ms. Adams” for her work from Nov. 7 through Feb. 11. 

It is a lot of money, Adams said, but she feels conflicted about taking it because it signifies the termination of her position as sanctioned camp leader. Without continued income, finding housing is a challenge. Adams has a housing voucher, but she has not found a landlord who will accept it.

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After giving Adams the letter on Tuesday, staff changed the locks to the storage sheds where donations are stored at the support site and gave the combination to another camp resident whom the city is also issuing a “thank you” payment for an undetermined amount: Vance Swallow, a veteran and leader within the camp. 

McGuire said that city staff changed the combinations to the storage shed locks again on Thursday, and that now city employees and Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center street outreach team members are the only ones with those combinations. 

McGuire said the city was considering a cupboard system for food and hygienic supplies, much like the one Sunrise Project pantry uses, that would allow people to take items as needs arise. 

“I don’t think we need to put soup and hygienic supplies under lock and key,” he said. “Our main goal is to make sure that everybody is allowed to get what they need.” 

The city is trying to hire a monitor for the support site and Winter Emergency Shelter. The position will pay $25 per hour, according to the job posting

Swallow said city staff members had encouraged him to apply for the support site monitor position, but that he would have to have housing to get the position. 

James Dailey, who has been homeless for four years, was excited for Swallow to receive payment from the city — and for the potential of a peer employment model, even though McGuire said it is not currently equipped to provide one. 

“It opens up a lot of doors,” Dailey said. “Once he (Swallow) does a good job, like I said, it opens up doors for other people, right?”

The peer employment model could enable a person experiencing houselessness to draw income that could be used for housing, while gaining employment experience, Dailey said. He said the city could post positions that cater to lived experience and assist interested houseless folks in completing the application and interview process, setting them up for better success in the employment world after they leave sanctuary sheltering.

One camp resident who asked to be anonymous said he was glad Swallow and Adams would receive financial compensation for having helped run the camp. 

“Jennifer and Vance are the two people that make the wheels go around in this place,” he said. 

McGuire said he would encourage anyone — especially those with lived experience — to apply to work at the support camp, but that moving forward the city would assume responsibility 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.

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