Within two days of announcing a new online form to report people living outside to Lawrence’s homeless programs team, the city had received more than four dozen responses regarding approximately 20 camps.
City staff members are upping their efforts to discourage people from making new campsites in areas where the city has deemed it illegal. That includes parks, sidewalks, the public right of way, and on private property without the owner’s consent.
Staff members are also formulating plans to make progress with residents of the longer-term campsites that are pretty well established and have larger populations.
Names and faces
The city on Wednesday announced its new online form to report people living outside. It asks for the approximate address of the camp, a description of the people living there and when the campsite was first noticed.
By Friday afternoon, the form had received 49 submissions regarding approximately 20 camps, Cori Wallace, a spokesperson for the city, said via email.
“It’s critical to establish relationships with people experiencing houselessness and connect with those who need services faster, as soon as they enter the community or establish a sheltering location,” Wallace said. “Some folks who reside in a campsite do not know what services are available to them, where they can find support, etc. Offering assistance can only happen after the homeless programs team and our partners establish contact. It’s our priority to establish a relationship as soon as possible when possible. That often happens at their campsite.”
The city’s news release announcing the online form stated that every person living in Lawrence should be able to enjoy life and feel safe where they are, “including both housed community members and people who need shelter.” If an unsheltered person is camping and in need of emergency shelter, city staff members work with local service providers to help people move to “a sheltering option better suited to their needs,” according to the release.
But Misty Bosch-Hastings, homeless programs coordinator for the city, pointed to some holes in the assistance options that are currently available. For example, existing limits on capacity and other barriers make it more difficult for people to get into emergency shelter, she said during the Lawrence City Commission’s meeting on Tuesday.
“The system we have now at our emergency shelter typically requires a referral by particular agencies, who then have to complete referral documentation and wait for approval,” Bosch-Hastings said. “Our current emergency shelter system does not allow an adequate number of beds available to the population experiencing homelessness.”
In addition, none of the systems or local nonprofits in place offer emergency shelter for children or families, but there are 17 households with children on the city’s by-name list, and many of them are unsheltered, she said.
Bosch-Hastings now has three months on the job. She shared with Lawrence city commissioners this week some of the needs she sees and concerns she has about the city’s current situation.
Regardless of how long someone has been living outside, city staff members and partners want to know who they are and what kind of help they need.
The city now has 289 people on its by-name list, meaning known people who are experiencing homelessness in Lawrence. That is up from 278 people about a month ago. That doesn’t necessarily mean there are 12 new people living outside but rather that 12 people have been added to the Homeless Management Information System, or HMIS, that is used by service providers countywide.
People on the by-name list are assessed and scored on vulnerability, so service providers can focus on those who are most vulnerable and do their best to ensure those people’s needs are being met, Bosch-Hastings said.
Wallace said the initial goals of the city’s new online form are twofold: to provide an easy pathway for the city’s homeless programs team and partners at Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center to connect with people who are sheltering in unsanctioned locations, and to respond to locations in the community.
“Knowing members of the unhoused community by name and by face is a key part of connecting people to services, and that is an intended outcome of the by-name list,” Wallace said.
Bosch-Hastings also said the city has been looking into adding GIS (geographic information system) data to the HMIS, so that in addition to knowing people’s names, providers will know where to find them.
Addressing new campsites
City Manager Craig Owens said last month that the city is trying to “shrink the footprint” of people camping around town.
From a numbers standpoint, Assistant City Manager Brandon McGuire said Tuesday that the city’s 2023 point-in-time count — a count of sheltered and unsheltered people experiencing homelessness that is carried out on one night in January — came to 351 people, a 51% increase from 232 people in 2022. Of those 351, 95 — about 27% — are unsheltered. And “we think is a grossly undercounted number,” McGuire said.
He said one of the most common concerns the city hears is that “somebody is visiting the park on Saturday and they realize that there’s the kind of new neighbor in the park, and what what can be done about that? How can we help that individual? How can we help maintain the use of the park for for everybody?”
As the city looks to address new campsites in areas where camping is not allowed, staff members will give people living in unsanctioned areas a minimum of 24 hours’ notice to vacate, Wallace said.
“If the individual has not cleared the area within the designated time frame, a member of the homeless programs team will meet with the individual to give them another opportunity to move,” she said. “If the individual does not voluntarily vacate the area, they may be given a citation for illegal camping and be removed, along with their belongings. There are multiple connections made to invite that person to more appropriate shelter.”
McGuire said Tuesday that “almost in every situation where we’ve had to do this, there is voluntary compliance.”
“If not, then they’ll have another conversation with them and they’ll have to make a decision about whether law enforcement action is needed at that point, which would typically be the issuance of a citation or, if needed, to pursue trespassing,” he said.
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The city’s news release stated that belongings of people who are removed from areas where they were camping will be held for 30 days.
“To reclaim belongings, anyone can connect with a member of the homeless outreach team. That personal request or even a request passed on to them using their former location or a street name is appropriate and will be responded to,” Wallace said.
City commissioners have heard from local business owners during almost every meeting in recent months about issues with people experiencing homelessness. Many of those people own businesses downtown.
Before June 2020, it was illegal for people to camp on any public right-of-way area. But amid the COVID-19 pandemic, 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 zoned in the downtown commercial district (CD) — but only when shelters were at full capacity.
Those areas are fairly limited, according to zoning maps on the city’s website. They’re outlined in red on the maps below: the first page is a wider look, and the second and third pages are zoomed in on the areas north and south of the Kansas River that are zoned CD.CD-districts
“If the police department or homeless programs team responds to individuals camping in the downtown commercial district, they first check with local shelters to see if there are emergency shelter beds available that day,” according to the release. “If shelter beds are available but the individual refuses to relocate, then a citation for illegal camping may be issued.”
Though Mayor Lisa Larsen in September began questioning city staff regarding why they couldn’t enforce camping bans when there may be overnight beds available at the Lawrence Community Shelter, commissioners have not publicly discussed changing the ordinance.
McGuire said the city, county and service providers are working to build systems that are needed in order to be effective regarding more long-term, established camps “and help what are, in some cases, several dozen folks at a campsite access services without completely overwhelming the system — do that in a way that they’re safe, the providers are safe, and that we’re able to successfully connect them to resources and housing.”
Bosch-Hastings said she believes the city needs a multidisciplinary homeless outreach team that will meet people where they are and work on connecting them to services in a progressive engagement model: “Whereas other approaches may be guided by a sense that providers can predict what kind of interventions are needed, or kind of a provider saying ‘I know what’s best for you,’ progressive engagement meets each household where they are, focused on housing,” she said.
“Progressive engagement assesses a household’s unique strengths and circumstances to determine the lightest touch interventions required to resolve their immediate housing crisis.”
She said her vision for the team would include peer specialists, recovery specialists, a community health care worker, crisis-trained police officers and a mental health professional.
Bosch-Hastings said she had spoken with people from the Lawrence Police Department, Heartland RADAC, Artists Helping the Homeless, Heartland Community Medical Center, Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center, Lawrence-Douglas County Fire Medical, and others and received some verbal commitments to be part of that model.
She also said the city needs some sort of navigation center: “We need one place the community recognizes as the place to send folks for help; the place that they can be fed, clothed, and receive guidance on next steps.”
Bosch-Hastings said there was going to be a percentage of the population that are completely resistant to any type of sheltering, housing or services — oftentimes people who are experiencing severe and persistent mental illness or substance use disorder.
“There’s no fast, magic answer for this type of person experiencing homelessness. It is just going to take time and relationship building, earning trust identifying an individual’s needs and showing care and concern by meeting those needs,” she said. “I hope that we will find a place in our community to serve this population with a different array of services so they are not peppered throughout the community anymore.”
Larsen asked what happens when a person just doesn’t want to be housed, and “At what point do we ask them to do something different?”
Bosch-Hastings said that in her experience, “We don’t give up.” She said if someone isn’t harming themselves or others and they’re not in a place where camping is illegal, there’s not a whole lot that can be done, but they do aggressive outreach, and those people “kind of tend to go where we can no longer find them” and disappear if they’re super resistant.
In addition to the challenges Bosch-Hastings mentioned to city commissioners, members of the public also voiced some concerns Tuesday.
One person who identified herself as a resident of the Lawrence Community Shelter told commissioners that “There is a reason why the homeless don’t trust any of you. Because you guys have made promises time and time again for affordable housing, resources, and you never ever come through.”
Howard Callihan, a member of the Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center homeless outreach team, spoke multiple times during Tuesday’s meeting.
He said he was “maddened by how much of the decision-making ends up being complaint-driven.” He said it makes it impossible to get anything productive done when “all we’re doing is running around, putting out fires.”
Callihan also said he was concerned that there’s nowhere to escalate if someone has needs that go beyond what his team is capable of providing, and that there are major service gaps for people with intellectual disabilities, people on the autism spectrum and older people who are experiencing dementia.
Alex Buzicky said she has worked with hundreds of people experiencing homelessness, and the most common factor she has found is that they have experienced trauma.
“From my leaders, I ask that we don’t perpetuate the narrative of blaming people experiencing homelessness for trying to survive. I don’t want to hear this narrative in words or actions,” Buzicky said. “I don’t want to see camping bans enforced. Police involvement can be traumatic for a lot of people for a lot of reasons, and I don’t want to see leaders who are going to increase the amount of police enforcement at shelters sanctioned or unsanctioned.”
Buzicky asked commissioners to keep working with experts.
“Change is incremental, and it’s costly, and it’s slow. I see several entities taking an incredible amount of steps in the right directions,” she said.
Regarding limitations on available services, Wallace said the city is working with partners to continue to scale and increase resources available to folks with a complex set of challenges. She said she thinks it’s only fair and responsible to articulate the community’s current situation.
“There is definitely a focus on the continuum of care that every partner is working to continue to build to address the needs of all folks experiencing chronic homelessness,” Wallace said. “It’s not exclusively the City who has scaled services and added staff. This work is ongoing throughout Douglas County. Intentional conversations and activity at all of the partners connected to this work are happening, and they will continue to be vital as we move forward together.”