Brandon McGuire, assistant city manager of Lawrence, said the city’s growing homeless population should be viewed as a statewide problem worthy of appropriations by the Kansas Legislature to cities struggling to provide services for people living on the streets. (Kansas Reflector screen capture from the Legislature’s YouTube channel)
TOPEKA — Bowersock Mills and Power Company owner Sarah Hill-Nelson manages hydroelectric power plant facilities on both sides of the Kansas River in downtown Lawrence where homeless people struggling with mental illness and addiction tend to congregate.
Some that she encountered arrived from other cities — specifically Hiawatha, Melvern, Leavenworth and Topeka, she said — after being told Lawrence was a haven for unhoused people. Hill-Nelson said others were apparently given bus tickets to Lawrence by officials in communities eager to rid themselves of troublesome residents. The result has been a public safety crisis in Lawrence that surpassed the city’s ability to deliver housing, treatment and services to the homeless population, she said.
“I’ve even heard about people who kinda laugh, ‘The liberal people in Lawrence, it’s kind of funny, let them deal with it,'” she told an House and Senate committee studying homelessness on Thursday. “It’s not that funny, because these people are suffering. Lawrence simply cannot handle all the Kansans suffering from substance use disorder and mental illness.”
Hill-Nelson said a person was killed in July near the area where her hydroelectric plant employees parked. In a subsequent nearby incident in August, a person was stabbed in the neck during an unprovoked attack. She also described being chased on foot and approached by an aggressive male. When she reported the incident to police, she was told to carry a firearm.
She said the “homeless problem” was frequently framed as a consequence of the high cost of housing, but the reality was most of the homeless in Lawrence exhibited highly unstable behavior associated with illegal use of drugs.
“When we asked Lawrence police officers to help us understand these people’s erratic behavior, they explained that the ‘new meth’ was destroying people’s brains and rendering them almost incapable of functioning,” she said. “I believe that we need to openly, and without judgment, acknowledge substance use disorder as a core driver of homelessness, and work on it from that direction.”
The city’s plea
Brandon McGuire, assistant city manager for Lawrence, said the city invested millions of dollars to address homelessness, but it wouldn’t be adequate. The city authorized a controversial encampment along the river, but bed space in the local homeless shelter went unused because people didn’t want to go there. There has been public discussion in Lawrence about constructing a village of small residential units to move people off the streets.
McGuire urged the Legislature to pass a law forbidding entities receiving state funding from transporting people across a county line without establishing and linking that person to services in the new location. In addition, he requested the Legislature view the issue as a statewide problem warranting state financial assistance to cities that have become de facto homeless hubs.
“No Kansan should be displaced, transported from their hometown due to falling into homelessness,” McGuire said. “Lawrence and Douglas County, along with a handful of other municipalities, cannot be expected to provide these services to all Kansans.”
Terry Hund, program director with the faith-based Project 2 Restore initiative in Topeka, said she had worked for 20 years with the homeless population, incarcerated people reentering communities and women seeking a way out of exploitation. She said lawmakers striving to make a dent in the unhoused population in Kansas needed to grasp the depth of their challenge.
“Vulnerabilities? It’s every survivor,” she said. “Trauma? PTSD — Post Traumatic Stress Disorder — serious and complex. Advocacy? Resources with supports are a must. Mental health? Affordable and available. Housing? A must with supportive resources. Community? Lead with compassion.”
Other merchants’ perspective
David Hawley, owner of Papa Keno’s Pizzeria on Massachusetts Street in Lawrence, said the presence of homeless people downtown had grown since onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. The city could have more than 400 homeless residents, he said.
“The safety and well-being of my staff and customers have been compromised as incidents of theft, aggression and other related issues have become more frequent,” he said. “I have employees that have been assaulted at work and on the way to their cars after work. These incidents not only create an unsafe environment, but also deter potential customers from visiting local establishments, leading to a decline in revenue.”
He said safety of homeless people was compromised when residing in makeshift camps, especially among those struggling with addiction or mental illness. Sidewalks and parks should be public spaces for the community, he said, rather than a location for homeless people to occupy.
“The diminished appeal of downtown areas and the safety concerns surrounding them deter potential investors and visitors, ultimately impeding the overall development and prosperity of our community,” Hawley said.
Brady Flannery, president of Weaver’s Department Store that had served Lawrence since the 1850s, said to understand the challenge of homelessness it was necessary to look at the problem through eyes of consumers.
“Safety is not interpreted by a third party. A mother feels safe parking her car in a public place and taking her children somewhere or she does not. A group of girlfriends feel safe going shopping and dining at certain places or they do not. There must be policies in place to deal with bad actors and criminal behavior,” he said.
Flannery told legislators Lawrence had a “brand” problem. The city claimed its downtown corridor was one of the state’s best tourist attractions, but the district had become undesirable because of homeless people, he said.
“What we have to deal with on a daily basis is needles, drugs, violence, mental health and its effect on customers, effect on employees,” he said. “There must be policies and laws in place to deal with bad actors and criminal behavior.”
Rep. Francis Awerkamp, a St. Marys Republican and chairman of the special committee on homelessness, said he was surprised by escalation of the problem in Lawrence, the ability of homeless people to disrupt commerce and the apparent law enforcement vacuum. St. Marys is located between Topeka and Manhattan, and has a population of about 3,000. Lawrence’s population is closer to 95,000.
“I’m from a smaller town. If I went personally and I did some of the activity (described), I’d get a pretty quick visit from the local police chief,” Awerkamp said. “There would be consequences. I can’t do those things. I’m not going to go through someone’s dumpster on Main Street. How is that happening in downtown Lawrence? Law and order — it starts there.”
Sen. Beverly Gossage, a Eudora Republican said experiences of Hill-Nelson, Hawley and Flannery were “horrible” and theorized city government officials adopted rules or regulations that created a magnet for unhoused people.
“That’s the last thing you need,” she said. “Government can sometimes be the problem, even if they don’t mean to be.”
Rep. Susan Humphries, R-Wichita, said it was difficult to understand why Lawrence would contemplate expansion of services or facilities to the homeless because that could exacerbate the problem as more people without shelter voluntarily or involuntarily moved there.
“Let’s be honest,” she said. “We hear it’s just a good place to be homeless.”
Individuals and families caught in the cycle of homelessness shouldn’t be viewed through a political lens, said Rep. Allison Hougland, an Olathe Democrat who has worked with homeless people for a decade.
“I want us to remember that we’re talking about people,” Hougland said. “This is an issue, but the homeless are people that need a place to live.”
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