More than two dozen people gathered Wednesday to share their thoughts, concerns and plans for action to help Lawrence community members experiencing homelessness.
As the weather gets colder, people living outside are feeling the effects of the elements a bit more drastically than in warmer temperatures, Mariel Ferreiro, one of the meeting facilitators, told the group as the conversation began at the downtown Carnegie Building.
“I think it’s our responsibility as community to have conversation with folks who have that lived experience, with folks who are close to the issues, and with folks who may not even see themselves in the issues,” Ferreiro said. “And how can we build that people power together, and really try to call upon those who have power, who have the ability to shift and move, to do more?”
One goal that many present hoped would be an easy one to accomplish: Ask the City of Lawrence to take down its online form to report camps.
The “snitch” form, as some in attendance dubbed it, received more than four dozen responses regarding approximately 20 camps within two days of the city announcing it.
Many voiced concerns that people living outside are being left out of conversations about how to help.
Dustin Boldt said he stays at the camp near the Amtrak station in East Lawrence, and he and a few others have wanted to reach out to high-level city officials and find out how they can help with public relations as ambassadors.
“There are people out here that are on the right page and are willing to try to reach out and say, ‘Hey, we’re going to help you,’” Boldt said.
Boldt said he spends a lot of hours worrying, and he sees a lot of people suffering. He said he does intend to be housed and he needs to start focusing on himself, but he was at the meeting to help be a voice for others.
A friend who was with him left the meeting because she felt uncomfortable, Boldt said, but he planned to encourage her and make sure she understood that showing up and making her voice heard was important and needed.
Kincaid Dennett, the other meeting facilitator, said it was understandable that Boldt’s friend may have felt unsafe and uncomfortable. They said it was a space to continue building solidarity so that people do feel safe and heard, and this meeting “wasn’t a one-off.”
Others said they felt that some of the things that are frequently proposed as solutions, such as mental health treatment, are misplaced.
“Telling unhoused neighbors ‘mental health, mental health’ in a system where people’s basic needs are not met is basically — it’s frustrating to me, and how are people supposed to better their mental health while they’re in survival mode?” one community member said.
And housed people have mental health problems, too, they said.
“When you don’t have the walls of a house, your problems are out on display for people to see,” Ferreiro said. “… We’re in a society of mental unwellness, and a lot of that is a byproduct of systems that are not allowing us to be in a space of thriving.”
Some also raised concerns about lack of communication between service providers, issues with referrals, gaps in which services organizations are able to provide, and constrictive state legislation.
The group wrote a few demands — in addition to their plan to ask the city to remove the online “snitch” form.
They want to see plans for overflow emergency sheltering when the number of people in need exceeds the number of beds available or for those who can’t get into the Lawrence Community Shelter for any number of reasons. Those should include more options specifically for women and families, they said.
They want to see complete plans for transportation to and from the Lawrence Community Shelter, which is on the far eastern edge of town, if that is where the city plans for people to seek winter emergency shelter. The city announced in March that there would be no downtown overnight shelter this winter.
And they said they want to see a long-term plan. “We cannot continue to have emergencies in the winter,” organizers wrote. “How can we as a community support lasting change and support folks transition out of homelessness?”
Ferreiro said she has been part of the larger City of Lawrence and Douglas County planning efforts to address homelessness and housing.
“But this needs to be a transparent and community plan so we don’t have to get into these spaces again, and so we can focus on other things — like the concern for mental health, like the concern for treatment needs, whatever that may be — we need to vastly improve our current conditions and resource people before we can even talk about moving on to those other things,” she said.
Dennett said via email after the meeting that all Lawrence city commissioners had been invited to attend the meeting.
Commissioner Lisa Larsen attended in person, and Commissioner Amber Sellers listened in via Zoom from out of town. Commissioner Brad Finkeldei had expressed interest in attending but was unable to make it in time, and Mayor Bart Littlejohn and Vice Mayor Mike Dever did not respond to the invitation, Dennett said.
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August Rudisell (he/him) has been a photographer and videographer for The Lawrence Times since March 2021. He is a former dispatcher, he avidly consumes and creates local news, and he would love to meet your dog when out and about at a community event.
See more of his work for the Times here. He can be reached at arudisell (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com.
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