For the first time ever, Lawrence, Kansas is providing an encampment site for homeless individuals in the community.
The Lawrence City Commission approved Unified Command’s request for a special event permit on October 6, 2020. The approved permit allows the encampment, located at Woody Park, to run from November 4, 2020 to April 5, 2021. The camp is supported by $374,000 in CARES Act funding. This money covers restroom trailers, camp expenses, and park staff according to Mitch Young who works in Lawrence Parks and Recreation administration.
The Unified Command was created in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and is composed of diverse Lawrence groups such as county and city organizations as well as provisional nonprofits. After the approval of the permit, the camp preparation and fulfillment responsibilities were handed to Lawrence Parks and Recreation and Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center.
Derek Rogers, the director of Lawrence Parks and Recreation, is confident that Parks and Recreation’s history in designing, fixing, building, and maintaining facilities makes them a great organization to facilitate the camp.
“We have that skill set, we have the property, and on the recreation side we have the skills to maintain facilities and rules,” Rogers said. “So there are things that we do at that level that a campsite is really not that different from. We aren’t social services, and that is where Bert Nash Mental Health Services come into play and the partnership formed.”
Lawrence Parks and Recreation will provide 24/7 supervision through its employees. Lawrence Parks and Recreation reached out to hire new individuals who wanted to work specifically at the encampment, and have two full-time employees who will be helping out as well.
Bert Nash is responsible for training these new employees. The training will be focused on non-violent intervention and de-escalation techniques according to Mathew Faulk, the supportive housing supervisor at Bert Nash.
“The training focuses on body language, verbal language, posture, how to maintain a physical space and de-escalation language in relation to interacting with individuals who may have challenges or factors in their life that make them more prone to elevation,” Faulk said. “It also talks a lot about understanding what goes into a situation that may escalate, and how you can be a precipitating factor and or how not to be a precipitating factor.”
Bert Nash’s Homeless Outreach Team or “HOT” for short, has almost 15 years of experience in working with Lawrence’s homeless community. As an outreach team, they spend the majority of their time out in the community. On any given day, an outreach worker may be in court with an individual, a doctor’s office, a state or federal benefits office, facilitating access into a hotel or helping the individual with applying to different services. The HOT team also provides cold-weather gear yearly, as they estimate 50-70 homeless individuals are living outside during the winter months.
Currently, the HOT team is reaching out, regarding the encampment, to the individuals they know are homeless. Once they identify an individual who is interested in the services, they help facilitate the processes required for the individual to qualify for the encampment.
The Homeless Outreach Team is looking for individuals who will abide by the camp rules. For example, alcohol and illegal substances are not allowed on the property and no public intoxication will be permitted. Homeless individuals will have to sign a conduct agreement, and agree to be placed on the Regional Coordinate Entry List. This list triages homeless individuals according to their level of risk. The level of risk of each individual is determined by a standardized test that has been adopted by the State of Kansas Balance of State.
Once the individual is triaged, they are targeted for Housing and Urban Development funded housing programs. The program that will be utilized for individuals housed at the Woody Park camp is the Rapid Rehousing Program, which is an emergency solution grant for individuals living on the streets looking for housing. The individuals who are placed on this list are conferenced every two weeks to prioritize need.
“We are targeting locations around the city where people have been camping already and also we’re targetting households who, because of their own circumstances may be high risk, such as elderly or survivors of domestic or sexual abuse,” Faulk said. “We are trying to make a conscious effort in approaching individuals for whom we think the camp will be of good service, as well as using the camp as a way to mitigate the risk of COVID-19.”
Individuals who are experiencing homelessness during the COVID-19 pandemic do not have readily available access to daily hygiene and sanitation practices that are essential during the pandemic, according to Faulk. The camp at Woody Park will provide access to daily hygiene and sanitation practices with its three restroom and shower trailers, purchased by the city in early October. Along with the shared trailers, each individual in the camp is provided with a 10-by-10-foot tent which features a large cot, a bin and lock to store belongings, a space heater and electrical outlets.
“It’s great,” said Larry Hill, a resident of the camp. “I love it here. My first night I slept for about 12 hours. I have a big cot, they’re very comfortable. I turned my heater on and in 10 minutes my tent was nice and warm.”
Hill, who has been experiencing homelessness on and off since he was 18-years-old and is now 46, is incredibly grateful for the privacy and comfort the camp has provided for him.
Although a set plan for providing food at the campsite is still in the works, there is more than enough food in Lawrence available to those in need according to Hill. Bert Nash is hoping to team up with Just Food and the Salvation Army to provide on-site meals according to Young.
“I want to be here so that I can move forward,” Hill said. “Having a place to store my things is a tremendous help. How am I supposed to go get a job if I have to carry everything I have around with me?”
Along with the material help the camp is providing the residents, Bert Nash is providing counseling, assistance and guidance to help the residents get off the street. On Monday, Hill will meet with Bert Nash to start the process of obtaining a new ID, which he feels is the first thing he needs to move forward.
There is an ongoing discussion about finding another piece of property for after the special event permit at Woody Park expires. This would allow the services to be provided on a more permanent basis for COVID-19, as well as a community service.
“The camp is not meant to be a housing solution,” Faulk said. “but it is one of the tools that we have created to address the issue of COVID-19 as well as the issue of homelessness and camping in the community.”