Concerns about North Lawrence camp persist as city eyes budget for new homeless programs department

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As the city proposes spending $2 million on a new homeless programs department, some people experiencing homelessness, local advocates and the owner of a nearby business have expressed ongoing concerns about the city’s handling of the campsite in North Lawrence. 

City Manager Craig Owens recently released a draft 2024 budget and wrote in a memo about his intention to create a department dedicated to homeless programs — an arena in which the city acknowledges it lacks experience. 

In recent weeks, city workers have fixed long-broken fencing, installed security cameras, and moved the entrance from the north side to the south side of the camp behind Johnny’s Tavern. All of these changes were enacted after the city announced that it did not receive any bids to operate Pallet Shelter Village, a cluster of about 75 cabin-style shelters for people experiencing homelessness that was supposed to open this month but is now slated to open in November

In the meantime, the city has increased spending in order to provide more resources for the 50- to 60-some people who stay at the camp. 

When the city first opened the campsite in North Lawrence, it kept spending at a minimum. Initially, the city used $18,000 to buy one batch of tents, but those didn’t hold up in winds from the nearby Kaw River, so the city purchased another batch for $25,000. 

From October through January, the city provided few other resources besides an occasional staff presence, some trash cans, portable toilets and a lock for each tent. 

From January to June, the city spent $93,000 to pay support monitors to staff the site in addition to the salaried employees who oversee its management. The city spent another $102,000 from January through May for supplies, such as headlamps, hot hands, bath towels, microwave meals, snacks and toiletries. 

“They feed people as much as you ask,” said Sara Hoppe, who stayed at the campsite from its inception until July 1. 

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New entrance ‘creates a feeling of lack of safety’ for some

The city spent about $15,500 in June to relocate the camp entrance, according to invoices provided by the city clerk’s office. The move has been contentious among some neighbors and residents. 

Kacey Carlson, owner of Third Eye Sadie’s at 311 N. Second St., said she was frustrated because the city didn’t consult her. Moving the entrance to the south side of the camp has directed foot traffic from the campsite closer to her shop, she said. 

August Rudisell/Lawrence Times The city has moved the entrance to the North Lawrence camp for people experiencing homelessness to the south side of the camp from the north side. The area is pictured Sunday, July 9, 2023.

“We have done very well in that space up until very recently,” Carlson said. “The primary issue is the customer base and how they feel about coming to this area. They don’t feel safe parking in my lot and they don’t feel safe walking into my building. … I am not exaggerating when I say that several times a day we have ambulances and police and fire trucks going past our building and into that area. That is another way in which it creates a feeling of lack of safety in the shop.”

In a news release, the city said the relocation of the entrance is aimed at “providing the safest possible emergency shelter for those in need.”

“As the camp continues to evolve, our team is collaborating with community partners and evaluating the best options to improve the safety and privacy for those staying there,” Cicely Thornton, homeless programs project specialist, said in the release.

Hoppe said the entrance has created more hurdles for people who stay at the campsite. 

“It’s made things harder for when we wanted to go to the cooling station that’s not even working or when we need to go talk to Jenn (Adams, known as the “camp mom”) at her camp because she has a lot of things that can help us with whatever project or living situation we need help with like dish soap, food, tools,” Hoppe said. 

Adams, who previously managed the city-sanctioned camp, lives across the street at the “unsanctioned” campsite to the north.

In conjunction with the entrance relocation, the city closed the fence at the old north entrance and locked the gate. Hoppe said many camp monitors told her they don’t have the key to the gate and could not open it. 

For a while, residents tried to create a second opening at the north end by separating the fence pieces, but staff members have consistently closed any openings and directed residents to enter and exit from the south. 

On July 1, after a couple weeks of watching people climb the fence, Hoppe grew frustrated with the lack of a safe exit on the north side, so she cut the fence. The newly installed security cameras captured Hoppe destroying the fence, and she was asked to leave the camp. She has not been allowed reentry. 

“Did the fence deter people? Sometimes,” she said. “It doesn’t deter people from looking in and staring like we’re animals or the people bringing in drugs.”

The city also fixed the back fence, which had been dilapidated for months, but some camp residents say interlopers still find their way inside somehow. Sometimes people enter during brief windows when there is no staff monitor working, residents have said. 

Chansi Long/Lawrence Times A dilapidated fence at the city-run campsite is pictured on June 22, 2023.

Accessibility concerns

For Lori Lindaman, who uses a wheelchair, the entrance relocation has meant more suffering, she said. 

Lindaman’s tent is located on the north side of camp, where the staff office trailer used to be — near the accessible bathroom and the shower.

Now Lindaman struggles to make her way to the trailer where she can request a meal or go to the portable bathroom that’s open all the time, she said. Often she goes without eating, though certain staff members check on her to make sure she is fed, she said. 

August Rudisell/Lawrence Times The city has moved the entrance to the North Lawrence camp for people experiencing homelessness to the south side of the camp from the north side. In addition, the city moved the staff office trailer, the red box visible here, to the south end of the camp. The area is pictured Sunday, July 9, 2023.

Lindaman could move her tent, but she doesn’t want to. Moving the tent would position her further from the shower, and the bathroom she uses during the day. It would also mean moving near people who are addicted to hard drugs, she said. 

“I don’t like change,” Lindaman said. “Why did they move (the trailer) in the first place? They moved the handicap bathroom over there, too. I’m the only one who needs it. It doesn’t make sense. Why?” 

On the day the city moved the trailer, Lindaman was barricaded in her tent and unable to leave for several hours, she said. For three weeks after, she had difficulty using her wheelchair on the rocky terrain. The city has since installed mats that make it easier for her to navigate. 

Billy and Lori Lindaman

The entrance relocation has not improved her safety, she said. People still bring fentanyl in. There are drug overdoses a couple of times a week, she and others said. And last week, another resident she thought was her friend tried to attack her with a machete, she said. A security camera captured the incident, and the person who allegedly threatened Lindaman was banned from the camp and arrested. 

Lindaman has grown depressed living at the campsite since January. Her husband, Billy, works two night jobs, so Lindaman sleeps alone. 

With her displaced hip, Lindaman cannot work. She applied for disability once a couple years ago, and she wants to do so again. Her Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center caseworker plans to help her with the process, Lindaman said, but she hasn’t been able to yet.

Lindaman needs a hip surgery but has no means to obtain one. The living conditions have taken a toll on her and she spends awake hours in her tent — when she can stand the heat. 

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‘I literally have nothing’

The temperatures have climbed so high this summer that many people living at the camp have been hospitalized for heat stroke. The city set up a community tent and a misting station well away from the south entrance. Camp residents say the misting station has never worked, and now it’s so far away from the only exit, walking there is tiresome. 

August Rudisell/Lawrence Times The misting tent sits to the north of the city-sanctioned camp. The city recently moved the only entrance and exit to the camp to its south end.

One afternoon in June, Jermaine Shaw found himself losing consciousness from the heat. An ambulance took him to the hospital where he received two bags of fluids, he said. One of his biggest worries was whether he would be robbed while he was gone. 

Jermaine Shaw

Shaw has had his belongings stolen three times since he arrived at the camp, he said. His shirts, even the dirty ones, gone. His shoes, gone. His grandmother’s pearl buttons he kept to remember her by — gone. 

“I had a bunch of phones that didn’t work, they took those. They took the broken phones,” he said, incredulous. 

Now he says he has nothing left to steal. Shaw said he has been waiting to see his Bert Nash case worker for several weeks — they were sick, he believed — so he could work on getting his ID again, since it had been stolen too. 

Another camp resident said he has had everything stolen a dozen times.

“I literally have nothing,” he said.

Shelly Berkley, a volunteer who drives camp residents to medical appointments and food pantries, is concerned that bad actors slip into the fence undetected while advocates play by the rules and struggle to connect to new people they could help access services. 

“We were told the purpose of moving the entrance was to help with security. It seems to have just opened up other areas for people to get in,” Berkley said. 

Another one of Berkley’s concerns is that there is no clear path for advocates to ever be allowed in to help residents. The city has not yet provided a way for anyone who is not already an approved service provider to gain entry into the campsite. Berkley grew tired of asking for approval, so she tries to maintain the connections she made before the city in April banned advocates from entering, but she has not been able to connect with new residents since. 

Shelly Berkley

“The staff helps me get things to people but limits my ability to connect with residents and assist them with needs, pantry rides, medical visits, job searches,” she said. “Our Homeless Outreach Team is stretched. Seems having advocates fill in some of the needs would be beneficial.” 

On average, Berkley goes to the camp four times weekly. Sometimes she’s there multiple times a day, heading over when camp residents contact her for help. 

“She takes me anywhere I need to go,” Lindaman said of Berkley. “She stays on call all night. She talks to me at pretty much any hour.” 

Lindaman is one of the camp residents with a phone, and she had an established connection with advocates such as Berkley before the city banned them from entering. 

After staying at the campsite for six months, Lindaman said she has not seen anyone obtain housing. 

She hopes to have a place herself one day. Her next step toward that is applying for disability. 

“We’ve been trying to get that done for about a month now,” she said. “(The caseworkers) are stretched thin. But we have a plan.” 

We asked the city about several of the concerns mentioned in this article.

“Our city allocates considerable resources toward solving the homelessness crisis in our community,” Laura McCabe, a spokesperson for the city, said via email. “Our goal remains functional zero — meaning homelessness is rare, brief, and one-time. Our recently released 2024 budget proposal creates a new department to better structure and resource our homelessness response efforts. It has become clear, since last year’s budget process, that the homeless crisis affecting our city, and the nation, requires a dedicated operations department.

“Camp New Beginnings is an emergency shelter option. It was not developed as a viable long-term solution,” McCabe continued. “Among other things, folks utilizing the site are afforded a tent, food, hygiene trailers, access to support services, and an improved sense of safety and privacy, which we believe is preferable to being left alone unsheltered. It is not considered adequate long-term housing and is not intended to be. While we wholeheartedly respect people’s right to voice their opinion, we remain focused on long-term solutions while simultaneously developing new systems and structures to aid those in crisis.”

She said the city would like to encourage community donations, and that hygiene products of any type always go to good use.

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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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