Board members present: Ted, Jeff, Alison
Neighbors present: 45
Ted started the meeting with an overview of which commissioners he might be expecting this evening to talk with us. He gave a history of his time in North Lawrence and his family’s roots here.
North Lawrence has a history of transient persons, usually seasonally. Ted said that during the pandemic, many transients were not able to travel away from Lawrence and stayed here. Ted quoted the current transient (vs local unhoused) as 85%, at a total of around 500 people right now. Ted got this number from the power company.
Becky at the Ballard Center told Ted at the beginning of the year (2020) that some of the transient population of homeless were threatening the local population, telling them they should not use Ballard services.
In 2021, there were many reports of fires up on the levy behind the houses that are on Oak and Ash, with threatening chants (“we’re going to kill you in your sleep”) and other activities like trespassing and peeping tom activity. Residents were told by the police that officers could only respond if they would catch people “in the act” of crimes, not just on reports of certain activities.
A resident of that area said he has videoed someone on the levy brandishing a gun late at night, around 1 in the morning. The police did respond, but could not find the individual, so they deployed a drone with infrared. They found the person, but he did not brandish the gun in their presence.
Ted says there are may reports of people wandering the neighborhood during the night. One home close to the levy reported a break-in around 2 in the morning, with a cut fence, stolen tools, and a broken glass back door. The resident dog ran the intruders off.
One neighbor has reported their son, while riding his bike on a weekend morning, being stopped by someone he did not know, with questions about where he lived and whether or not he had any gasoline. The child went home and reported to his parents, who called the police.
A local businessperson was coming out to her car one evening and saw a couple preparing to set up camp south of the river. When she stopped to talk with them and said they could camp safely in the area behind Johnny’s, the couple said they were chased out of that area. The man insisted they could camp anywhere they wished and become belligerent with her. She came across a police officer about a block later, and asked the officer what the police could do. The officer said they couldn’t do anything, and recommended that she arm herself.
Other residents have been told to stay hands off, and to call the city commission.
Ted says that some of the local people he knows who are houseless report that they can’t leave their camps unattended, because other populations in the homeless community will steal things from their camps or destroy their camps.
Ted continued to give a history of homeless and transient populations in Lawrence and North Lawrence, reminding us of various efforts 20-25 years back from the city and other organizations. He also mentioned that there continues to be a lack of affordable housing in Lawrence, which may contribute to overall problem.
Ted says that Lawrence is “known” as a friendly community, so there has been a larger influx of houseless people to town who are not leaving, and that they are taking up a majority of the slim resources that are available for efforts to house and take care of houseless people.
Neither the county nor the city took any responsibility for not offering housing to people out near the jail, where there is ample land for housing, whether tents or tiny homes. There are container homes in that area specifically for this that are not being used. When Ted called the county to see if they would take responsibility, the said the city took the lead. This was prior to the Woody Camp effort that happened during the pandemic.
Ted emphasized that in most of his conversations with city and county officials, no one is taking responsibility for the problem or how to handle some of the issues that are arising, and a few people have backtracked and reneged on what they previously said. The police says that the city commission has told the police force “hands off”, but that is currently being denied.
Ted said this meeting tonight is about finding someone to own this issue.
When people are admitted to one of the camps that get organized and set up, they have to abide by certain rules to stay in that camp. A number of people do not prefer to stay in these camps for these reasons.
Ted talked about the yearly NLIA campaign to raise money every holiday season for Ballard Center and adopting North Lawrence families for Christmas. The money stays in North Lawrence and all goes to North Lawrence residents, and includes small amounts like gas cards, grocery cards, etc. given to the working poor in this neighborhood.
Ted said that he and Rick (Renfro, local business owner) attended a downtown businesspersons meeting, and he said that downtown businesses say they are losing money because of the population of people who are panhandling in downtown right now. Part of North Lawrence is zoned as a downtown area, including the area behind Johnny’s and the Union Station Depot.
Ted said that North Lawrence has always been a welcoming community, even though it was “the wrong side of the river” prior to the 1990s. We’ve had 200+ new homes build in North Lawrence since the 1990s. What draws families is Woodlawn, but also, people love the small town atmosphere and being within walking distance of downtown.
Ted is suggesting crowdsourcing and neighbor sourcing solutions to this issue, as it increases and starts to impact residents and businesses. Ted says that the reputation of Lawrence as being a welcoming city for homeless has even reached Germany. He is interested in helping and protecting the local population of homeless, and finding ways to deal with the transient population that is overwhelming the system.
A resident talked about different issues that he has seen happening close to the levy, and how he has asked for police assistance but has not received any. He believes that the police department could allocate their resources more justly throughout the city, and respond to citizen concerns, especially across the river, in a more serious manner.
Ted said that the police department is currently 20 officers short. He said that the current force is overwhelmed this year with not only the homeless issues, but with policing students, who seem to be “more active” this year. As a policy, for years they have not responded to traffic issues or doing traffic control for events or setting up radar checks in neighborhoods.
A resident asked if anyone from the city was here yet today to talk with us, as advertised, and what good the meeting might be if the city isn’t listening to us. There are two commissioners present at at the meeting tonight, representing the city. Amber Sellers spoke up saying she is here to represent for us. She was able to be with us tonight on short notice, as another commissioner who had planned to attend is out ill.
A resident commented that he agrees that there is a problem; crime is up, sanitation is a problem. He said he’s been robbed twice by neighbors, and had neighbors who were selling drugs out of their homes. He says, some neighbors do drugs, most don’t; some steal, most don’t; but he’s actually questioning the information that he is hearing this evening as hearsay. He says that the county has been working on the issues, but the city has been struggling. There are private organizations that are doing work to present models to the governing bodies on how to resolve the issue of homeless in the city with in five years. He emphasized that he doesn’t like to hear “us” and “them” rhetoric; he would like to find positive solutions to the issue. He said that many of us in the room are two or three paychecks away from being houseless.
A resident talked about the difficulty of recruiting new people to the police force. He then went to talk to the present commissioners in the back of the room privately.
Ted said he is the “messenger”, so don’t kill the messenger; he’s trying to relay information that he has from meeting with commissioners.
A resident from Ash Street asked if we will be able to ask questions of the commissioners. Ted opened the meeting to questions to the commissioners, Amber Sellers (city) and Shannon Reid (county). The commissioners came to the front table we had set up for them.
A resident said that a point is being missed re the transient and local populations. He said that the transient population is the issue; their presence and activities are impeding help for the people that we know are “local” homeless folks.
A resident asked the commissioners for attending. He said the city has defined where it is legal to camp within the city limits. He asked where those areas area. Commissioner Sellers said she does not have that information immediately at hand, but there are people present in the meeting who have those locations.
Commissioner Sellers said that she wants to take two steps back before continuing. She says the issue is bigger than just two populations; from the information that the safe and secure and homeless teams and the social service organizations, that homelessness is a spectrum and it is intersectional. There may be various concerns with each person who is unhoused; each one is unique. She said the only thing she sees between my houseless neighbor and her is that she is housed. She said that we all are a paycheck or a life trauma away from possibly being unhoused. There are many variables into what goes into how someone ends up unhoused. So the resources that are put together with cooperation of the city, county, and other agencies are getting closer to understanding all of these issues.
Seller said that she has been to many other communities in the state as well as the country, and every single community is dealing with similar issues. She gave a call to action to take in as much information as possible, speak to the homeless outreach team, talk to Bert Nash, talk to the Housing Authority and Family Promise, and get a larger picture of what the community is dealing with, and what they are trying to do help the populations. She said that there are some acute, heightened incidences downtown, but it does not stop her from going downtown and engaging. She reminded us that each of them is a person.
There are subject matter experts in the audience tonight, and Sellers called out to them to speak.
A resident asked why the camp was put in North Lawrence, and why there aren’t more camps spread throughout the city. CIcely Thornton, homeless programs project specialist at the city, spoke to that issue. In October of 2020, City Ordinance 14417 stated that people could camp in the commercial district, 9th street to 2nd and Lyon when there are no other shelter beds available in the city.
Another resident said that a lot of people are camping in the woods along the North side of the river, from the bridge to 8th Street. It is more difficulty now to walk in the woods by the river. He said he was confronted and threatened while doing so in spring of 2022, and he can no longer hike back there or take his grandkids there for hiking.
Matthew from (the city?) said the entire issue is dynamic and complex. He said that city has recently changed its camping ordinance based out of a ruling in Idaho that said that if a city does not provide enough housing, they cannot fine or stop people from camping in a public place. He said that the drastic changes to the service structure of our nation over the last 60 years has had an effect on what has and can be done. There are multiple services needed in a multifaceted population which will require a large amount of investment at the governmental level, but also amongst citizens of the cities affected. The camp is a short term solution as they move toward creating and providing housing and other services.
A resident asked what homeowners can do if the police don’t respond and they don’t feel safe going own in their own yards. There are no immediate solutions, but meeting as a community as we are tonight is a start.
Comm Sellers said she is hearing what people are saying tonight about the “hands off” piece, and that she hears these stories, but there is a disconnection between what she is hearing and what the police department is saying.
A resident said that the city needs to send a truck down to pick up trash from the tent areas or provide a dumpster. As a homeowner, he can’t leave trash out in his yard or he will get a letter and get fined.
A business owner in NL said this is the beginning of all of us realizing we are in crisis mode. He compared it to the pandemic, when we didn’t know anything about the virus. He acknowledged that there is a spectrum of people and issues that lead to homelessness. He said we have to figure out a way to get through this and what residents really need is education about what is going on, what’s happening, and then leadership from the city, county, police and sheriff departments, NGOs, etc. He says that there just isn’t overall coordination between everyone concerned about the issue. He has written a letter to all the commissioners asking for direction, resolution, and resources. Even though by law people are allowed to camp in Commercial Districts, residents don’t want to see people in the parks across the river. This business owner is aware of who is in the camp behind Johnny’s and keeps in touch with the county and the city on what is going on there. He says we can resolve this with education and intentional leadership.
Commissioner Reid responded that it is an escalating crisis that is not unique to this city. She highlighted lack of inventory, skyrocketing prices, compounded trauma, anxiety, etc. that can contribute both to homelessness and to the friction that is happening in neighborhoods. She said there is a new mobile response team through Bert Nash. She highlighted the past stories of “us” vs “them”, the rhetoric/history that Ted outlined. She said that the issue is not isolated to the levy area and North Lawrence, but they are also seeing issues at the local lakes, other parks in the city, unincorporated areas of the county, etc. She said the county’s role is to be a supportive partner to the city, assist in creating supportive services in an accessible way, and looking at housing opportunities.
A resident stood up and said the media reported “As of March 1, the city will have a permanent location in the county/city for the homeless population” and asked if this was true. Cicely said March 12. The resident said this is not what he read. He said that there needs to be some substantial commitment to setting a goal and getting a process in place to get the help to the people who need it.
Comm Sellers said that there is a process going into place currently. They are trying to create housing opportunities and services for subpopulations within the houseless population It doesn’t mean that by March 1, everyone who is experiencing homelessness is going to have a place to live with services. The resident said that he expects that the process would begin March 1. Sellers said the process is happening now.
The residents continued by saying “we” can’t help people, because we are not trained to help them. He said commissioners need to talk to the police chief, and the takeaway from tonight is the fire calls, the break in calls, and issues on streets close to the levy, and the firemen and police are saying they can’t do anything because the commission has told them they cannot. The resident asked that when we need help, we have to get a response, and we need action.
Cicely responded that there is a meeting with Mjr Fowler on October 18th and she will bring up these concerns she’s heard tonight.
Ted wondered if many of the transient population are not vaccinated, and may be bringing COVID to the camps. Others may not abide by the rules of the camps where they are set up.
Comm Sellers said there are several agencies in the city/county that provide outreach and assess for needs, including health needs.
A resident said her largest concern is that she isn’t seeing a plan, and she is concerned that all of the homeless in the city will be moved to North Lawrence.
Sellers said they are putting together a community engagement package on this issue, that will include sharing the plan with the community in town halls.
A resident asked why North Lawrence is taking the burden of the larger camp, and why there isn’t an effort to build more camps in other areas of the city.
A resident asked if the only coordinated camp in town over the winter will be in North Lawrence. The resident asked if there will be temporary shelters in other areas of town.
Cicely said on Dec 1st through March 12th, they will start housing 75 people community building downtown.
The ordinance only allowed certain areas for creating a temporary camp like the one behind Johnny’s as a temporary camp.
The resident mentioned the Lawrence Times article in which a woman was interviewed saying that putting everyone in the same camp will lead to violence.
Matthew quoted the zoning codes that limit where these sorts of camps can go. He said that the city is looking at other parcels and how to change the code for those parcels to create multiple areas in town where people can legally camp.
A resident asked how many months the larger camp will be in North Lawrence. Matthew said the goal is March, as the paper said. So the camp will be through the winter, and possibly another area could be legally opened sometime in March.
Sellers said it has never been the goal and intent to have just one temporary shelter areas. They are working to find multiple locations, based on zoning, where other camps can be set up. There is a group at the city is working on this.
A resident asked about what happened to Woody Camp. Matthew said it was only a temporary camp (6 months, November – March). That camp was established under a COVID response process.
A resident asked how long it took to decide to put the temporary camp in North Lawrence. Comm Sellers said It was decided in September in a commission meeting. It is a uniquely-zoned area to the city, so it was the most immediate solution.
A businessowner said during COVID, all the rules were thrown out, and people could camp in other areas without being removed. The Commercial District (downtown and parks) ruling allows camping, and it is against higher laws to deny campaign to people. He said that the commission changed the ordinance about campaign, and they are looking at making other areas that can be made legal camping areas. He said this IS a crisis, and it needs to be handled as such. He mentioned Built for Zero, a video that outlines a path to reducing homelessness within five years. https://community.solutions/built-for-zero/
Matthew spoke to the costs of not only helping unhoused people, but working people, families who need homes, etc. and how this will be millions of dollars in cost.
A resident asked if there will be 24/7 police or EMS services during the existence of the camp, especially overnight services and security, as we don’t have a fire station in North Lawrence and police response from south of the river can take quite a bit of time. The resident worries that there won’t be resources present 24/7 at the camp. She said there are 125 beds at the shelter, but only 50 are being used.
Sellers said the shelter is a private nonprofit and is using the “housing first” model and want to create “low barrier access” to individuals who have severe needs, so they have capped the number of people they can take in. They do not answer to the city, so the city can’t tell them to open to capacity.
Reid said that the 125 number is a misnomer. The model that the shelter is using can only handle a smaller amount at this time.
The resident asked if the lack of security or presence of resources overnight at the camp can be considered by the commissions in their plan.
Cicely reminded residents that the process is only a week and a few days in right now. The camp is staffed during the day by city staff, and they are doing a good job of keeping the peace.
Ted said why didn’t the campsite out on county land (pre-Woody Park) happen? Reid said she did not know that this was slated as a site for a camp. She said there was no plan in place, but it is possible that this parcel of land could be considered in this new effort to create camps around the entire city. Matthew said that is an undeveloped parcel with no utilities, etc. and there was never a camp proposed there.
Ted recapped some of the conversations he had after the Woody Park camp was disbanded, and some of the locations that were suggested to move a camp to. He asked about the property north of the new police station as a possible site.
Jeff said that a city in the KC area got a grant to provide pay, at $15 an hour, to clean up camp areas. He asked if grant money could be found for employment opportunities like this.
Ted quoted housing in North Lawrence as 85% owner-occupied at this time, one of the highest rates in the low-to-moderate income neighborhoods, so we do pay our taxes to support these programs.
Comm Reid talked about interpersonal violence and trauma that people experience in their daily and family lives, and how othering people, as “us” vs “them” can further that violence.
A resident noted that even though North Lawrence has dealt with these issues for decades, there has been an increase in all sorts of activities with the influx of the homeless to behind Johnny’s. He asked if the city is providing dumpsters for these camps. He said that North Lawrence has done neighbor-based cleanups of the camps in recent years, and asked who will be responsible for all the trash that is generated in both approved and unapproved camps.
Ted said that this camp was dumped upon North Lawrence by the city, without decisions or input from the actual residents of the neighborhood. In the past we were documented as one of the safest neighborhoods in the city for walking and biking, but residents feel that is not the case right now.
A resident asked what she should do if she is accosted on the levy or in other places. She has been approached by a person with a machete. Ted said to call the police every time and get the incident documented. She says that some restaurant staff downtown have started using the buddy system to get back to their own cars at night when they leave their shifts.
Ted has been in touch with staff at the city and all of the commissioners about this issue, going on for a few months.
FYI: The police non-emergency number is: 785-832-7509
Matthew asked if we have a neighborhood patrol in North Lawrence; Ted said “We never needed one!” He said we used to have a dedicated resource officer from the police department, Trent McKinley. He would stay and talk to residents, get a feel for the area, and what was going on. There are no longer resource officers available for this job.
Matthew said we have to, as a community, find a way to create those resources that we feel we need. Ted said that he meets with commissioners every week, saying the same thing, and he is still not seeing results.
A resident said that neighborhood watches dealing with people with machetes and chanting at neighbors would not be the best idea. Ted said that watches call the police when the see issues rather than engaging with the issues directly.
A resident said that there is an official neighborhood watch sign on North or Lake Street and asked if there is anyone to actually call if neighbors see something. Ted said these signs were a CBDG project about 20 years ago, but there has been nothing organized to respond to the signs.
Multiple people toward the end of the meeting decided to have conversations between each other rather than any one person leading the conversation. It was difficult to document. Ted ended the meeting at 9:03 pm and Jeff did the drawing.