LAWRENCE, Kan. — Community concerns in Lawrence, Kansas continue to grow over a large homeless camp on public land.

At least one Lawrence business owner has complained of trouble associated with the camp, which sits behind Johnny’s Tavern off Second Street. Others feel better solutions for helping the homeless need to be addressed. One local leader estimated the population of that camp has risen to more than 90 people.

The camp sits on a tract of public land off Second Street. It’s a city-supported camp, where public advocates for the homeless are assisting as well as serving as ad-hoc monitors during daylight hours.

When the pandemic hit in 2020, Lawrence city leaders changed their ordinances to permit camping on public spaces when homeless shelters are full. The primary shelter in Lawrence can accommodate only 50 people, according to its website.

Managers at Johnny’s Tavern told FOX4 they plan to reopen on Friday morning. The restaurant owners closed their doors on Tuesday, amid complaints from staff members and customers about camp residents. Johnny’s Tavern owner, Spencer Renfro, said employees had been threatened by customers and he’d heard a report of a stabbing at the campsite.

Sally Zogry, who represents more than 200 downtown businesses via Downtown Lawrence, Inc., is among the downtown business operators who favor better funding for the shelters. Kelly Corcoran, owner at Love Garden Sounds Music Store, said he hasn’t had any trouble at his store on Massachusetts Street.

“Everyone agrees the solution is to have supportive housing. That’s been shown in other communities. You get people off the streets and into supportive housing so they can live a more productive life and not be a revolving door,” Zogry said.

“I feel like those are people in distress and we have to look at it that way,” Corcoran said. “Rather than empathy for empathy’s sake, I think you need to have empathy lead to problem solving techniques.”

Downtown Lawrence Inc. sponsored a community forum on Wednesday where community leaders and business operators spoke openly about the need to do something about the growing homeless issue.

A spokesperson for the City of Lawrence shared this statement on Thursday afternoon:

“he three focus areas of our Housing Initiatives Division are homeless outreach, emergency sheltering and rapid rehousing.

This is a temporary, unimproved camping site established under urgent humanitarian and community circumstances for people who are unable to secure other shelter. Those who are using this site will also have access to our Winter Emergency Shelter.

We will continue to work on identifying a more sustainable location and plan to accomplish safe, dignified camping and sheltering to meet immediate life safety needs of community members experiencing homelessness.”

Lawrence Police have been instructed to arrest homeless campers only as a last resort, and then, only if a crime has been committed. On Thursday, Renfro commented that he’s encouraged by steps the city is taking toward satisfying all parties.

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