Lawsuit against City of Lawrence asks for court order to disband camps for people experiencing homelessness

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Several business owners have filed a lawsuit against the City of Lawrence, asking the court to order the city to close and disband two camp areas where people experiencing homelessness are living.

The lawsuit asks the court to address public health and safety concerns that plaintiffs attribute to the city’s handling of the local homelessness crisis.

Specifically, the lawsuit mentions the city-sanctioned camp behind Johnny’s Tavern in North Lawrence — which the city has dubbed Camp New Beginnings — and other camp areas on the river levee, as well as the camp in the area of Seventh and New York streets near the Amtrak depot in East Lawrence.

The complaint asks the court to declare that both of those camp areas as public and private nuisances, and that the city’s “allowance, maintenance, and encouragement” of the camps is beyond its legal authority and a breach of its duty.

“The proliferation of the Encampments has endangered all people’s health and safety, and is inflicting damage not just on property owners, but also on those who are least able to afford legal counsel to vindicate the harm being inflicted by the City — the innocent involuntarily unhoused. The community cannot stand idly by while lawless zones that promote crime erode the well-being of the community,” the lawsuit states.

The 36-page complaint, signed by attorney Todd Thompson of Lawrence law firm 333 Legal, is followed by 47 pages of exhibits — photos of campsites, people holding signs asking for money and more.

The lawsuit includes 26 plaintiffs, half individual people and half businesses. “Plaintiffs are Lawrence residents, property owners, and business owners, who live, work, and/or own property in the lower-income neighborhoods of North Lawrence and East Lawrence where the City has allowed, encouraged, and assisted people to set up camps,” the complaint states.

The first plaintiffs named in the lawsuit are Johnny’s North Lawrence Inc. and owner Rick Renfro.

Rick Renfro

Renfro wrote in a letter he emailed to the publication along with the complaint Tuesday morning that the city has made it extremely difficult for him to protect his staff and to provide a safe, enjoyable environment for customers.

“This lawsuit was not my first choice, or my second, or third. But the city has allowed vagrants from other cities to set up their own camps around the New Beginnings camp, and all along the river,” Renfro wrote. “The city provides them with water, food, tents and restrooms. The city has created, maintained and enabled a nuisance.”

Under city ordinances, camping is not allowed in most locations. 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) when shelters were at full capacity. The city opened the sanctioned camp in October 2022. The land behind Johnny’s Tavern is zoned CD, but the city-owned land near the Amtrak depot is not.

City staff members have shared plans to deal with the more established camps, such as the ones mentioned in the lawsuit, but they have not provided a firm timeline for when those camps might disband and said that “Arresting our way out of this is not an option.” A city spokesperson declined to comment for this article.

The complaint also alleges that some land occupied by the city-sanctioned camp on the levee is actually owned by two of the LLCs that are parties on the lawsuit, and that the city is using the land without permission.

“The city is allowing dozens of people to camp illegally on city owned land. And the city is trespassing by setting up a trailer, fencing and tents on land the city does not own,” Renfro wrote. “So at this point, legal action is the only thing I can do to try to compel the city to help all Lawrencians in crisis be safe moving forward.”

The lawsuit includes numerous concerns that plaintiffs attribute to some people who are experiencing homelessness and living at the camps: unwanted noise; violence and threats, including some cases that have been covered in local media; human feces and urine; disposal of hypodermic needles; fires and arson; debris and more. “Most tragically, at least five Inhabitants of the Levee Camps have died in the past year through drug overdoses and murder,” the lawsuit states.

It also alleges that the city has not kept promises made to residents of the city-sanctioned camp, such as counseling and staff monitoring of the site, nor to the plaintiffs and others who have voiced their concerns.

The lawsuit includes three counts. First, a nuisance count alleges that the city’s actions and inactions “have created a condition and/or permitted a condition to exist that is harmful to the Plaintiffs’ health; indecent and offensive to the senses; obstructs the free passage and use of public parks, sidewalks and pathways, and streets; permits the sale and use of illicit drugs near Plaintiffs’ properties; leads to the excretion of human waste on Plaintiffs’ properties; and constitutes a fire hazard, as alleged above.”

“… Under both Kansas Supreme Court precedent and Kansas statutory law, the City’s creation, expansion, operation, and maintenance or allowance of the Encampments is a public nuisance,” the complaint states.

The second count, trespass, asks the court to order the city to remove gravel laid for the camp and city property from the portion of the levee land owned by the two LLCs.

The third count, declaratory relief, alleges that “Plaintiffs have suffered, and will continue to suffer, irreparable physical harm and economic losses as a result of the City’s unconstitutional actions,” and says “This Court has the authority to, and should, enter judgment declaring that the City’s conduct with respect to the Levee Encampments is unconstitutional.”

The lawsuit closes asking for injunctions and court orders to remove everyone living at the two campsites, clean up the properties and “to refrain from taking any further action that will exacerbate the existing nuisances, or create new nuisances in alternative locations.” It does not mention seeking monetary damages.

Renfro said he planned to file the complaint in Douglas County District Court on Tuesday.

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Mackenzie Clark (she/her), reporter/founder of The Lawrence Times, can be reached at mclark (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Read more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.

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