Lawrence city workers clean out homeless camp

LAWRENCE | City workers cleared out a homeless camp that included small wooden homes and accommodations for up to 50 people.

The work on Friday came a week after two men died of drug overdoses in the camp in a nature area east of Lawrence.

"I couldn't believe it," said Acting Parks and Recreation Director Ernie Shaw. "They were getting ready to build a city down there."

The city department has removed homeless camps from the area in the past but the one removed Friday was much larger and more sophisticated, Shaw said.

A crew of about 20 city employees, using front-end loaders, four dump trucks and large construction trash bins, removed two wooden buildings approximately 12 feet by 20 feet. They were insulated and equipped with battery-operated lights. More lumber was on the site, indicating that other buildings were going to be constructed, Shaw said.

Shaw said police officers told him that anywhere from 20 to 50 people could be found at the site on any given night.

Following its recent practice, the city posted signs in the area several days in advance to tell people the site would be cleared. No arrests were made Friday.

Camping on city park property is illegal. Shaw said the city keeps the area clean — removing camps an average of every four months — to prevent fire hazards and to allow the area to be enjoyed as natural greenspace.

But an advocate for the homeless said the city's decision to clear the camp will make things harder for those who needed it.

Loring Henderson, director of the Lawrence Community Shelter, said his 31-bed facility is full each night. The Salvation Army has room for another five to eight people a night, said Wesley Dalberg, commander for the Salvation Army's Lawrence operations.

Henderson said his staff tries to encourage people to find someone who will give them a place to stay. But the shelter also gives blankets to people who may have to spend the night outside.

"We don't recommend places for them to go, though, because there are very few places in the city where it is legal to sleep outside," Henderson said. "Some of them, I know, just stay awake and keep moving all night."

Rather than clearing out the camp, Henderson said, the city should consider creating a temporary designated camping area where activities could be better monitored. That would give the city time to establish homeless service programs, he said.

The Lawrence Community Shelter is trying to move to a location that would allow it to expand to 75 to 100 beds. And the Lawrence-Douglas County Housing Authority is working on a program to work with landlords who are willing to allow vacant apartment units to be used as temporary housing.