City staff members are enforcing a “no visitors” policy aimed at improving safety at the North Lawrence campsite for people experiencing homelessness, but some camp residents and grassroots advocates are concerned that it’s causing further isolation.
The only people allowed to enter the camp other than residents are city staff and those affiliated with “previously established service relationships with county or city leaders,” said Laura McCabe, a spokesperson for the city. Examples of approved agencies include Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center, Heartland RADAC and Artists Helping the Homeless.
The Jax Project and other advocates who have established connections at the camp are no longer allowed to come inside the fence. Volunteers can drop meals off, but they cannot enter the site to eat with residents.
Resident Brad Wilson is afraid the policy will cause him to lose connections with people, such as the volunteers who check on residents’ well-being and bring meals.
He said residents only have a select few people “outside of the fence,” and he’s worried that if those people feel like they’re getting blown off, they won’t make the effort to try to reach out anymore.
No avenue for approval
Shelly Berkley, a volunteer who drives camp residents to medical appointments and food pantries, sought to gain approval for entry into the camp. She thought a city worker would be able to direct her to an application or a contact number so she could continue meeting residents behind the fence to provide support and care.
She learned the policy does not provide an avenue for anyone who’s not already on the city’s list of approved partners to gain approval for entry.
“If you have advocates that are volunteering their time that are known to you, and people that are legitimately here helping, and they know that and they see it on a regular basis, then I think there are times when they do need to be able to let us in,” Berkley said.
Having no avenue to seek approval for entry has left advocates and some people staying at the campsite confused and disheartened.
One such advocate is Nancy Snow, who brings hamburgers to the site weekly. Snow has comforted residents experiencing suicidal ideation, and consoled residents in the throes of grief.
“I’ve developed relationships and connections — speaking with people, sitting with them at the picnic table, and forming bonds,” she said. “I love those people. In an important sense, they’re my family.”
There’s nowhere outside the fence where residents, volunteers and others can gather for a communal meal.
In addition, many people living at the site prefer the comfort and privacy of their own tents when they discuss what’s going on in their lives with these volunteers.
Snow said she understands the city’s need to protect residents from harm but questions the decision to isolate residents from advocates.
“It adds to (the residents’) misery,” Snow said. “I am offended and dehumanized by it; I can only imagine how they feel.”
Some residents said they were appalled as they watched a city worker threaten to call the police on Snow if she were to bring her food donation past the fence on Wednesday.
The city announced in a news release last week that it is putting in place new safety protocols at the campsite, emphasizing the policy of no visitors. Staff members are also asking residents to sign a new agreement that lists rules for staying at the site.Expectations-and-pet-policy
The city’s press release says the new policy is based on “nationally recognized best practices.”
The term “best practices” refers to methods that consistently yield efficacy through scientific research. City staff members would not provide references to sources used to create the policy.
Inclusion and community connection are some proven best practices in homelessness, according to Cuica Montoya, program director for Safe Outdoor Spaces within the Colorado Village Collaborative in Denver.
“We have volunteers that come on site on a regular basis,” Montoya said. “Volunteers to help us with the site duties or volunteers that want to leverage their skills into the space. We rely heavily on volunteers … People bring meals all the time, and they’re welcome to stay and eat with our community members.”
Volunteers at Safe Outdoor Spaces have to sign and abide by a use agreement. And if they violate the terms, they are held accountable by staff and asked to leave, Montoya said.
The opportunity to sign such an agreement is not one that advocates such as Trina Tinsley, co-founder of the Jax Project, have been given.
Tinsley and her son, Jax, have brought meals to the camp on Saturdays for the last six months.
“Why would you not allow people to come in there and serve this community?” Tinsley said.
“I don’t understand that. How is that a best practice? How is that in the best interest of the residents of the camp to not be allowed human contact from people that have their best interests at heart? How is that best practice? It doesn’t make any sense.”
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‘Nothing about us without us’
Last week’s press release said the city made the decision by consulting “experts and individuals with lived experience.”
More than a dozen people living at the camp told us they were not consulted about the policy, though several said they wish they would have been.
Camp resident Lori Lindaman said that on Thursday, a city worker ordered a pastor who was praying with her to leave.
“(The worker) interrupted to tell him he had to leave,” Lindaman said. “God thought that was rude, and so did I. The pastor obviously wasn’t a danger.”
Lindaman is disabled, and other people help her with showers and meal retrieval. She lives at the campsite with her husband, but he is often gone since he started two new jobs a few weeks ago.
In recent weeks, the city had overlooked Jennifer Adams’ presence at the sanctioned camp, letting her bring Lindaman meals from the Salvation Army truck and help her shower. Adams, known as the “camp mom,” lives at the unsanctioned camp on city property across the street and is not supposed to be inside the fence.
Though camp residents often seek Adams for support, the city is no longer allowing her to help Lindaman shower, and she said city staff told her they will call the police if she comes into the sanctioned camp. Staff have been instructed to call the police if anyone enters who isn’t authorized.
On Wednesday, a city staff member called the police on Jenn Wolsey, a human services advocate and the former homeless programs coordinator for the city.
Wolsey had shown her social service badge to staff and entered the camp to see her clients — even though she is not on the list of approved providers.
Reported as a “suspicious person,” Wolsey said the police could not confirm whether she was banned or approved to enter the site, but having seen her clients already, she left.
City staff members also called police to order a Lawrence Times reporter to leave the camp or face arrest.
Having advocates like Wolsey and members of the press around makes Lindaman feel safer — she said she would have told city staff members who made this decision on her behalf that, had she been consulted.
“They just shoved it in our face,” Lindaman said. “If they took a different approach, then maybe we would listen to their side, but they said, ‘This is how it is.’”
Consulting people experiencing homelessness in decisions that affect them is a best practice, Wolsey said. That practice is linked to the slogan “Nothing about us without us.”
The city could invite camp residents to join the conversation instead of determining who their providers are without asking, Wolsey said. Staff could sit down with each individual as they come in and ask them who their support people are, and make allowances based on what they learn.
“Surviving the streets is a full-time job,” Wolsey said. “Why are we adding more stress to these folks by limiting access to their providers, to their advocates, to their support people, and their street family? Best practices is not to isolate.”
We asked city staff members several questions about the policy via email: Where is this policy based? What studies support it? Can you refer me to what sources you used when you made this decision to restrict access to the support site? What are you doing to promote community connection and not isolation in view of this policy that restricts existing connections between the houseless who have signed agreements and the community?
“The policy in no way promotes isolation,” city spokesperson Laura McCabe responded.
None of the people we were able to interview said the new policy made them feel safer, but several said it made them feel more disconnected from the community outside the camp.
Interlopers are able to infiltrate the camp in a few different spots where the fence is compromised, residents said. On Saturday, a portion of the fence had collapsed because of the wind.
The policy dictates that staff should conduct “wellness checks” at least twice each day between 8 a.m. and 10 p.m. According to the rules agreement, two recorded unexcused absences “may lead to discharge” from the camp.
Staff now take a photo of each resident after they sign the rules agreement, in accordance with the city’s new policy. Some residents said the photos have not helped staff to know who is and isn’t supposed to stay at the camp, however.
On a recent evening, a camp monitor asked two men, “Are you one of my campers?” before heating a meal for them. The men said yes. The camp monitor did not ask or use their names, giving them their meals and letting them into the camp.
Another recent change to the city policy allows children to live with their parents at the campsite. Read more about that at this link.
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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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