Mayor Lisa Larsen on Tuesday called for the city to push back against people camping around town. City staff members and her fellow commissioners said they agree that the situation needs to change, but there was not a feasible way to end camping right now.
City staff members provided commissioners with an update Tuesday on efforts to deal with the growing homelessness and housing crisis. After a staff presentation, commissioners heard from about 20 people, including many business owners; no one who identified themselves as homeless spoke during the meeting.
It’s been almost a year since the city opened the North Lawrence camp for people experiencing homelessness, now dubbed Camp New Beginnings. Some public commenters on Tuesday questioned how many people have actually moved into housing from the city-sanctioned camp.
The city’s goal is to reduce the numbers of people who are sleeping outdoors, Lawrence City Manager Craig Owens said, and the biggest issue that is still hindering progress is capacity.
“We have 850 units that are funded by this community; we’ve got to get them built. As that capacity starts to build up, we will get people from shelter, emergency shelter, into appropriate, affordable housing,” Owens said.
In addition, the city is still working to finish an operating plan and — hopefully — contract with an agency to operate the Pallet Shelter Village, which will add 50 beds in small cabin-like shelters in the Pinkney neighborhood. The city’s goal is to open Pallet during or before November.
Larsen questioned why the city could not begin enforcing ordinances against camping in the meantime.
Before June 2020, it was illegal for people to camp on any public right-of-way area. But city commissioners made efforts to decriminalize homelessness by adopting an exemption to the ordinance that prohibited nightly camping (Ord. 9754). The exemption made it legal for people to camp on city property located in the commercial district downtown — but only when shelters were at full capacity.
Larsen said the Lawrence Community Shelter currently has overnight beds available. After changes this spring, only about 20 to 25 people can stay at the shelter during the daytime; more guests may stay overnight, but they must leave early in the morning from the building on the eastern edge of town.
“We can’t wait to have enough capacity for this entire population,” she said. “… I believe we should be enforcing the camping rule, because we’ve got places for some folks to go.”
Assistant City Manager Brandon McGuire said there were 350 people experiencing homelessness during the city’s 2023 point-in-time count, and there are 180 beds at the Douglas County jail. There are currently 170 people in the custody of the jail, though not all of them are being housed there right now, according to the jail’s roster.
“Arresting our way out of this is not an option,” McGuire said.
“It’s gonna have to be more iterative — iterative in that we’re dealing with probably one camp at a time, or maybe a couple camps at a time, getting people into sheltering, getting them connected to services so that they can move into housing,” McGuire continued, “and then being ready to have more people come in, from the next camp, to the shelter beds that were vacated because people move through the pipeline to housing.”
Commissioner Courtney Shipley said she has voted on these issues the way that she has because she believes the city will end camping in all of its parks — “appropriately, and by trauma-informed people, and I’m absolutely not advocating that it is something that police need to do,” she said. However, she said this is not the time.
“I think that doing it at this moment, or maybe giving direction to do that right now before the Pallet village is ready to open, would cause a level of chaos that’s unnecessary at this time,” Shipley said.
Commissioner Brad Finkeldei said he agreed. The city was hoping to have Pallet Shelter Village open by June “and we would’ve ended camping by now,” but that didn’t happen.
Vice Mayor Bart Littlejohn said he ran for his seat because he wanted to help people and he thought he could.
“I want us to make sure that we don’t repeat the same mistakes that we did previously,” Littlejohn said. “So I think we’re all paying attention, that we’re making this concerted effort to have achievable results, and I think we’re all wanting the same thing. It’s just not happening as fast as any of us want it.”
Finkeldei asked Larsen which people or camps she would want to move first. Larsen said she wasn’t suggesting any specific location, but she wanted to know when the city could start enforcement that she thinks it should already be doing.
Owens said other cities that have done this work have developed sophisticated plans to help people successfully transition out of homelessness. He said the goal was to help people into recovery from homelessness rather than just clear people out of camps. He also said the city is trying to prevent people from establishing new camps and to make sure people understand that certain places are not appropriate places to go.
City staff members plan to bring back another update and new plans, including plans for the Pallet village, in October.
“Let’s keep the work up, keep the pressure on. I look forward to the update in October,” Finkeldei said. “I think we’ll continue to move this forward … We all know we have to solve the problem, so let’s keep hoping to solve it.”