Backlash over cleanup of Lawrence homeless camp points to bigger problems

By: - August 15, 2022 3:55 am
Tents sit around a gazebo on Aug. 12, 2022, in Watson Park in Lawrence. (Lily O'Shea Becker/Kansas Reflector)

Tents sit around a gazebo on Aug. 12, 2022, in Watson Park in Lawrence. (Lily O’Shea Becker/Kansas Reflector)

Homelessness in Kansas

This is the second article in a series about homelessness in Kansas.

Part one: Wichita increases resources to reduce homelessness, but more housing and health services are needed

Part two: Backlash in Lawrence over the cleanup of a homeless camp exemplifies the city’s unique challenges

Part three: Homelessness stretches beyond urban borders, where bipartisan legislation could help address housing shortages

LAWRENCE — Flyers were posted around downtown Lawrence in April alleging the city released a “lie-filled response” to concerns about the movement of a homeless camp.

The flyer said the city issued the response — in which the city claimed it followed protocol regarding homeless camps — because of the “pressure they’ve been receiving for sweeping homeless camps without adequate notice or compassion.” A picture of the flyer circulated on the internet, and advocacy groups took notice. 

Flyers posted around downtown Lawrence in April accused the city of unethically cleaning and moving a homeless camp. The city said they followed protocol when cleaning and moving the camp. (@y.e.a.n.o/Instagram)
Flyers posted around downtown Lawrence in April accused the city of unethically cleaning and moving a homeless camp. The city said they followed protocol when cleaning and moving the camp. (@y.e.a.n.o/Instagram)

The issue highlighted a long-term homeless problem in the city that has been exacerbated by the lingering economic effects of the pandemic, a lack of low-income housing and rising rents.

“Lawrence has a large population of homelessness, and historically has for the size of the community,” said Mathew Faulk, director of housing at Bert Nash Medical Center in Lawrence.

While Wichita — Kansas’ largest city — has four times as many residents as Lawrence, the homeless population in Wichita was only one-and-a-half times greater, according to the most recent Lawrence point-in-time count in 2020 and Wichita’s 2020 point-in-time count

Faulk said the reduced capacity in shelters because of COVID-19 forced more people to live outside.

The flyer that circulated earlier this year accused the city of bulldozing tents where campers kept food, water and survival tools.

“No attempts were made to store any items,” the flyer said. “They were all destroyed.”

Mitch Young, Lawrence park district supervisor and a member of the Lawrence Housing Division, said the accusations aren’t true. He said talks with the camp started three weeks before it was moved and all items were stored.

The notice was posted three days before the camp was relocated 50 yards across the street, according to the city. The city’s policy requires storing items left at the camp for 30 days.

Getting people sheltered is a main focus for the city. Jen Wolsey, homeless programs coordinator for Lawrence, said Lawrence and Douglas County as government entities put a lot of money into different homeless programs and provide services for those who are homeless.

According to the city, Lawrence’s 2022 budget was structured with the goal of funding “significant homeless and housing initiatives.” In addition to a new Housing Initiatives Division, the city’s 2022 budget has three areas of focus: homeless outreach, emergency sheltering and rapid rehousing.

The 2020 point-in-time count reported 408 homeless individuals in Lawrence. Between 2018 and 2019, there was a 30% increase in the number of homeless individuals in Lawrence, with 294 reported in 2018 and 396 in 2019.

According to the Kansas Housing Resources Corporation, vacancy rates in Douglas and Shawnee counties tend to be lower than other parts of the state. Compared with other regions in Kansas, Shawnee and Douglas counties have the newest housing stock and newer rental construction, especially in Douglas County. These factors have resulted in higher rental costs.

“We just don’t have available affordable housing at a level that is necessary for everyone who’s here,” Faulk said. “It’s a college town. There’s a lot of demand to live here. Landlords can pretty much charge what they want.”

A tent and belongings are seen on Aug. 12, 2022, in Watson Park in Lawrence. (Lily O'Shea Becker/Kansas Reflector)
A tent and belongings are seen on Aug. 12, 2022, in Watson Park in Lawrence. (Lily O’Shea Becker/Kansas Reflector)

The city of Lawrence released its goals for housing affordability over a five-year period from 2019 to 2023. By 2023, it aims to narrow the rental gap for non-student renters who earn less than $25,000 annually, add 100 affordable housing units, increase the number of rental homes that receive accessibility modifications annually, increase the number of rental assistance vouchers available annually and bring 70 units in poor condition into good condition annually.

“The picture I’m trying to paint is that there are a lot of factors that are playing into homelessness, not only in Lawrence, but as a country,” Faulk said. “They primarily revolve around housing and affordable housing stock and affordable housing availability. And then the second component of that is supportive services, and social services providers that can help provide the services that those households need to address their issues.”

Faulk said Douglas County and Lawrence are working to end chronic homelessness and joined the Built for Zero national movement in April 2020. The federal government’s definition of chronic homelessness is an individual with a disabling condition who has been homeless for an uninterrupted year or more, or an individual with a disabling condition who has experienced four episodes of homelessness within the last three years. 

“The primary goal that we’ve set for ourselves with that (Built for Zero) initiative is to eliminate chronic homelessness,” Faulk said. “And by that, we mean that there’s no one who has to be chronically homeless.”

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Lily O'Shea Becker
Lily O'Shea Becker

Lily O’Shea Becker studied journalism at the University of Kansas. She was an intern with the Kansas Reflector for the 2022 summer. Lily has experience as a multimedia journalist, photojournalist, producer and copy editor for a variety of news outlets in Lawrence and at the University of Kansas.

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