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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Last night, the body of a young woman was discovered in her tent at the North Lawrence Shelter Site. She had been dead for days. Residents thought she might have been elsewhere, and no one checked on her.
I became aware of this from a phone call I received from Jennifer Wolsey, a former city employee in the Housing Initiatives Division, who asked me to go to the site and comfort the residents. I got Wolsey’s call while I was attending a Lawrence City Commission meeting, and left immediately.
At the site, I saw Chansi Long of The Lawrence Times, who said she had been asked to leave, and did so for fear of being arrested. An advocate for the unhoused, also on site, was placed on permanent trespass. Both were doing reports of what was going on. The advocate was also comforting the bereaved.
I was not reporting, but spent time comforting residents, as well as workers from the Lawrence Community Shelter and Bert Nash, who were present and were in tears. Several residents sobbed, almost uncontrollably. I prayed with one young woman who told me she had been at the site for five days, and so, knew the deceased for only a short time, but felt as though she had known her for eight years.
After I saw the police and coroner standing over the woman’s wrapped body on a gurney outside of her tent, I approached. A police officer very politely asked, “Can I help you, ma’am?” I didn’t answer, but came near the gurney, folded my hands, and said a prayer. As I began, the officers in attendance immediately stood back and assumed an attitude of respect. After the prayer, the officer who had spoken to me thanked me. I appreciated that. They were courteous and respectful in the presence of death.
I stayed for some time, continuing to speak with residents, city workers, and other advocates. I have been going to the site since late November, making what have become weekly donations. I’ve gotten to know a number of the residents, but I couldn’t place the deceased. Around 3 a.m. the next morning, it dawned on me who the young woman might have been, and I was jolted. If I’m correct about her identity, this was an attractive, vibrant young woman with a lot of grit. Her death is a tremendous loss, not only to the North Lawrence Support Site, but to all who knew her.
Those of us who care about Lawrence and who care about the state of our society must come together to help unhoused people. They are people just like you and me — individuals, each with different stories, personalities, strengths and weaknesses. If I had half the courage and resilience of some of the unhoused people I know, I would count myself lucky.
It is too late for us to help the deceased, but we can prevent more deaths and unnecessary suffering. If you wish to join the advocacy group to which I belong, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
— Nancy E. Snow is a professor of philosophy at the University of Kansas. Her speciality is ethics.
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