New city policy says children can stay at North Lawrence campsite; it’s unclear what that might look like in practice

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Children are now allowed to stay with their parents at the city-run campsite for people experiencing homelessness in North Lawrence, according to a new policy.

To stay with their children, parents must read the “family contract,” and maintain contact with their children at all times, according to the policy, which went into effect last week. Previously, the city has not allowed anyone under 18 to stay at the campsite. 

The city announced Monday that it is putting in place new safety protocols at the campsite, emphasizing that there are no visitors allowed other than “community outreach partners” who have been approved by the city. Staff members are also asking residents to sign a new agreement that lists rules for staying at the site, and as of Wednesday afternoon, city spokesperson Laura McCabe said the city had received 43 signed agreements. 

But the agreement doesn’t mention the policy change that allows parents to stay at the site with their children, nor many of the other protocols the new eight-page policy spells out. 

On Friday, camp resident Connie Oldman learned of the policy change.

Oldman, 22, brought her 2-year-old son to the camp, asking to view and potentially sign the family contract. She was excited when she learned about the new policy because separating from her son is always so heartbreaking — for both of them.

The site monitors followed policy and notified Cicely Thornton, the city’s homeless programs project specialist, that a resident wanted to bring her child into the camp. They asked about the family contract. Thornton responded with a text, telling workers that “yes,” the child could stay, but it was “not best practices.”

Oldman waited for an hour and a half for Thornton to bring the family contract. Eventually, Thornton called a camp monitor and told Oldman she would instead secure a hotel stay for her and her son. Oldman, who had not yet been able to view or sign the family contract, took her son into the camp so they could wait inside her tent for more information about the hotel stay. As of Friday evening, she was still waiting to hear back whether her son could stay with her. 

Though the new policy had been signed by Lawrence City Manager Craig Owens with an effective date of Friday, April 21, Oldman said she had asked staff if her son could stay at the campsite earlier in the week, and she was told no. 

Molly Adams/Lawrence Times This photo from April 10, 2023 shows rows of tents at the city-sanctioned campsite for people experiencing homelessness in North Lawrence. Under a new policy, visitors — which the city says include journalists — have not been allowed into the campsite since April 24.

Thornton declined to answer any questions about the family contract, directing questions to the city’s communications email address. 

McCabe responded and did not answer questions about the new policy allowing children at the campsite, including why city staff made the decision to allow children. She did say that “We do not believe it is safe for any child to be homeless, encourage parents to accept support service agencies’ help, and provide guidance or emergency solutions to that end.” 

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Some mothers at the camp were interested in the new policy but were worried it was not a safe environment

Oldman and some other mothers said they thought the city should make a separate area for people with children and their support people. 

Others at the camp expressed concerns about having children at the support site. 

“This is not a place you’d want to bring your children,” resident Brad Wilson said. “Kids getting exposed to, you know, drugs and alcohol, cigarettes and bad influences — there’s a lot of negative factors when you try to introduce kids to an adult environment.” 

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Wilson said he and others at the camp would try to shield children from nefarious activity, but eventually they wouldn’t be able to, and the children could be traumatized. 

“It should be 21 and up,” said Zach Blakesley, who is 21. 

The Lawrence Community Shelter does not allow children because of safety concerns. 

“Being low barrier and serving the most vulnerable community members, which includes people with severe and persistent mental health issues and addiction, we have just determined that it’s not an appropriate place for children,” said Melanie Valdez, interim executive director of LCS.

The city’s new policy on the campsite has not come before the Lawrence City Commission.

Throughout the almost seven months since the campsite opened, city staff members have made decisions about its management — including a short lived plan to close the camp in December, and choosing to violate city code in order to place an office trailer and a hygiene trailer there — without approval from the commission. Owens has said that staff members are able to make many decisions about homelessness initiatives without commission approval as long as they follow existing ordinances.

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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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