People living outside, advocates tell Lawrence City Commission trust is broken

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Following an update on the city’s homelessness programs, many Lawrence community members who are living outside and advocates told city commissioners Tuesday that the city has broken their trust.

City staff members in their update shared how the city has closed the previously sanctioned camp in North Lawrence, several people have now moved into the Pallet shelter village, and the police department has placed officers on foot patrol duty downtown.

The city is planning to start enforcing a camping ban next month on the land just north of the Kansas River bridge, behind Johnny’s Tavern, where camping has been allowed. A change to city code amid the COVID-19 pandemic allowed camping there when there were no shelter beds available.

Misty Bosch-Hastings, director of the homeless solutions division, told the commission that the city plans to work systematically with different camps around town “because we don’t have enough beds to shelter everybody right away, and also because the beds that we do have are not suitable for everybody that is sleeping outside.”

“So it needs to be staged in a manner that we can go into one camp and work compassionately with them to try to find alternatives to shelter or housing,” she said. “We are going to have to be really creative because of the lack of housing here. … We want to focus one at a time on each camp and be able to wrap around them and do what it takes to end their homelessness.”

Bosch-Hastings also discussed efforts and plans to build trust with people living outside, saying that it takes a lot of time and positive interactions.

The increased police presence downtown is partially in response to recent homicides. David Blaine Sullivan, 62, was killed downtown in July 2023; Crystal Marie White, 51, was found stabbed to death in her tent in North Lawrence last month; and Vincent Lee Walker, 39, was shot and killed across the street from the library on March 6.

But a longtime resident of the unsanctioned campsites that surrounded the city-run camp in North Lawrence told commissioners that people are living in fear every day, and not enough is being done to stop threats and violence.

“If the city wants our trust, they need to do right by us,” Jennifer Adams, aka Mama Jenn, told commissioners. “… Nothing about us without us.”

A man who described himself as a 38-year townie told the commission that he had yet to see police actually patrolling or helping to keep the peace in camps.

“There’s no reason for any of my people to believe for a second that you will actually have their best interest in mind, or even consider what they want to do,” he said.


Rachel Schwaller, a historian at the University of Kansas who has been recording oral histories of people experiencing homelessness in Lawrence for more than a year, said the closing of “Tent City — which is what they call it, not Camp New Beginnings” — was not a good thing, but an act of erasure.

“What I witnessed with the bulldozing was an act of historical erasure of people, of who they were, and of the community that they developed there,” she said.

Some speakers emphasized barriers that may prevent some people from accessing services.

Trina Tinsley, of the local grassroots Jax Project, told commissioners to take a step back and consider why some people don’t want to go to shelters. Many people don’t want to give up their pets, which are their family members, but the Pallet village does not allow pets. She also said some people have experienced trauma in shelters in the past.

One man told commissioners that he didn’t qualify to live in the Pallet shelter village because he has a felony on his record, but he planned to stay at the camp where he lives because people need him.

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“Someone’s got to be out there to lift these kids up, to get them past where the hell they’re at,” he said. “They can’t be 23, flying a sign downtown and thinking that that’s it. They’ve gotta look to the future. So I will stay where I’m at.”

He also told the commission that “in any perspective of life, there’s a certain percentage of suck.” He said he could do 100 good deeds downtown, and “one screaming person comes through and erases everything. We’re sorry for that.” But he also said he’s seen a lot of beauty in the people of Lawrence.

One speaker said she’s rarely left Lawrence since infancy, and she’s now been living for 18 months “without walls and a door.”

She expressed frustration about groups that have emerged that she said are “cherry-picking photographs of the worst conditions present in the woods where I built a home,” and using “paternalistic and dehumanizing language” to describe people living outside.

“I’m so angry about the wording and the audacity to come here, where we live and in many ways thrive, and paint it all with the nastiest broad brush,” she said. “Maybe when the shelter begins to humanize us as adults in community, or the Pallet village allows pets or felons to be present, they can have their way a little bit more — but we just don’t want the help, right?”

“… There are artists and musicians here; there are naturalists, caregivers, and comedians; people who are ingenious with mechanical things, and others who understand human nature very precisely,” she continued.

She said she hopes to counter the negativity with her own photographs of “the beauty still present and created on a daily basis.”


Some speakers thanked the commission and city staff for closing the North Lawrence camp, reinstating the downtown police foot patrols and working toward solutions to Lawrence’s housing crisis.

Others voiced concerns that “there are two sets of standards and rules” and said they believed not everyone was being required to follow the same laws and rules.

Bosch-Hastings also discussed plans for a multidisciplinary homeless response team that will include mental health providers, substance use treatment professionals, peer support specialists, physical health professionals, emergency shelter staff, benefits specialists and law enforcement.

She said the city is partnering with a team of program coordinators within KU’s honors program to develop and administer training and homeless outreach best practices.

“I will anticipate returning to the commission meeting in April to expand upon the advancement of the homeless response team with our partners at the county and discuss how we’re going to leverage each other’s existing contracts to make this happen,” she said.

Commissioners were not asked to approve anything as part of Tuesday’s meeting — just to receive the update from staff.

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Note: A title in this post has been corrected.

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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