City to install hygiene trailer at North Lawrence campsite, following questions about staff trailer

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Post last updated at 11:58 a.m. Monday, March 6:

The city will install a bathroom and shower trailer at the North Lawrence campsite for people experiencing homelessness by Sunday, despite the plan violating city code.

The city recently brought an office trailer to the support site, sparking confusion and controversy. 

Employees of Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center and the city are using the trailer, or temporary site box, to meet with clients in private, said Porter Arneill, a spokesperson for the city. There is also a cell phone in the office that camp residents can use to make and receive calls, said a camp monitor who works at the support site. 

The newly placed office, which has heating, cooling and electricity, triggered questions about what was permissible at the support site under city zoning codes. Advocates and community members sought clarity and explanations on why the support site could have an office — but not bathrooms or showers. 

According to a news release from the city on Monday, “Members of the City’s Planning & Development Services Department have been closely involved in planning at the temporary support site throughout this process, and the team is aware that both the new bathroom and shower trailer and the additional administrative and donation storage trailer recently added to the site are in violation of current City code; however, both are being overlooked in the interest of public health and welfare and due to the temporary nature of the added facilities. The City will not be seeking a building permit for the bathroom and shower trailer but will ensure all facilities meet safety requirements.”

Since the camp opened in October 2022, camp residents have had no access to hygiene trailers the city bought with $215,000 of federal COVID-19 relief funds during the height of the pandemic.

“(The city) put this trailer office out there and (it) extended the timeframe of the camp remaining open, and determined that it is important that the staff have access to shelter, electricity, heat, and air conditioning,” Jenn Wolsey, independent homeless consultant and local activist, said last week. “Why is the city not willing to enhance the infrastructure out there for the trailers, which have already been purchased, to support the unsheltered individuals as well?”

Camp resident Tiffany Copp said last week that now that the city has placed an office at the support site, she wished the city would utilize the hygiene trailers as well. The hygiene trailers would benefit everyone at the camp, she said. Currently, many people at the support site have been showering at the Community Building, 115 W. 11th St., which is open to the public.

“I have to shower every two weeks because of my situation,” she said. “I just don’t feel comfortable showering where other people can see me.”

In Monday’s news release, the city said the climate-controlled bathroom and shower trailer will make it easier for those staying at the North Lawrence support site to access needed hygiene resources. 

“When the temporary support site in North Lawrence was initially constructed, the City had several concerns that delayed the installation of a bathroom and shower trailer, including freezing water lines and a lack of staff to support the added facility,” according to the release. “With the changing weather and increased staff at the site, the City now has sufficient supports in place to operate the trailer. The City is very nearly at its goal of completely staffing the support site 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week.”

In December, the Lawrence City Commission approved using $4.5 million of American Rescue Plan Act money — federal COVID-19 relief funds — to purchase modular homes for people experiencing homelessness. That is the city’s Pallet Shelter Village project.

Once that site opens, “the city will only provide support, including bathroom and shower trailers, at that location,” according to the release. “Those currently at the temporary support site will be given the first opportunity to move to one of the new Pallet cabins.”

City officials have said they anticipate the Pallet Shelter Village to open in June. Until then, the support site will remain open. 

In addition, “The City is also working with partners at the Lawrence Community Shelter to increase their overnight shelter capacity once the Winter Emergency Shelter closes,” according to Monday’s release.

City staff did not bring plans to install the trailers to the Lawrence City Commission for consideration. 

The city established Camp Woody as a developed campground providing temporary shelter during the pandemic for 20 people in 2020. City staff members cited urgency and bypassed the need for a special use permit, which could have taken months to get approval. Instead, staff members asked the commission to approve a special event permit

In an interview in October, Wolsey — who was then the homeless programs coordinator for the city — explained the restrictions placed upon the North Lawrence support site since the city did not go through the process of gaining a special use permit. It took less than one month for the special event permit for Woody to be approved — but the city didn’t go that route, either.

“Zoning restricts us from actually having a developed campsite,” Wolsey said back in October. “I cannot develop anything there. That’s why the water is only a spigot at a certain distance away. That’s why there’s no electricity, because if I were to develop that land, then I would be making a developed campsite, which is against the current city zoning laws.” 

The office trailer, which connects to electricity at the support site, is intended to help case managers provide social services. The site box also stores food and a microwave that the camp monitor uses to heat meals for camp residents. They were installed Feb. 24. No one from the city responded to email and phone requests last week asking whether these things caused the city to fall into code violations. 

The hygiene trailer will be installed by Sunday, March 12, according to the city’s Monday news release.

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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.

Mackenzie Clark (she/her), reporter/founder of The Lawrence Times, can be reached at mclark (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Read more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.

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