Lawrence 'tent city' provides people experiencing homelessness with safe camping

Camp Woody
Camp Woody for homeless
Posted at 7:09 PM, Jan 22, 2021
and last updated 2021-01-22 23:50:06-05

LAWRENCE, Kan.  — The City of Lawrence might have an answer to the increasing need in their homeless community.

"How do you potentially build a temporary shelter for folks who may be in transition so it may lead to future opportunities down the road?" Derek Rogers, director of the Lawrence Parks and Recreation Department, said.

That answer is Camp Woody, a permitted campsite at Woody Park in Lawrence, Kansas. It's made up of 20 tents for people experiencing homelessness. It sits next door to Lawrence Memorial Hospital.

"We actually have less problems with 20 to 22 people in this camp than I do in an area of the city that is an unsanctioned, unsupervised homeless site where you'll have multiple service calls," Rogers said.

After the COVID-19 pandemic began, the city noticed more people camping outside and requesting more services with not enough places to go.

People would use showers at the recreation center or utilize the drop-In and rest center before the pandemic.

The city used $377,000 in CARES Act funding to build Camp Woody, which is equipped with heaters and electricity in each tent along with heated laundry facilities and restrooms.

Staff is on the site 24/7. It will stay open through the end of March.

"They act more like a close-knit community," Rogers said of the residents, who are all adults.

While Camp Woody is a temporary solution brought on by COVID-19, it's shining a light on how much our communities need a permanent solution.

"It is not meant to be a housing solution," Mathew Faulk, housing program manager at Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center, said.

Bert Nash partners with the city, providing resources on-site to get Camp Woody residents on to stable jobs and housing.

"It does prove and show we can have safe camping in community," Faulk said, "But we need to focus on housing, and that's where service providers come in, federal dollars, landlords, the private sector."

Bert Nash received additional rapid rehousing funding to do risk assessment for the more than 200 people who are currently unsheltered in Lawrence on any given day. Faulk's outreach team puts people on a list ranked according to need.

All residents must abide by the camp's code of conduct.

The city hopes Camp Woody can serve as a model everywhere.

"Housing people with supports is a solution," Faulk said." It provides a higher quality of life for everyone involved. It mitigates crime, it mitigates all kinds of things. We, just as a community, have to be willing to put the resources in place, back them, and sustain them."

Rogers said communities from all over the country are calling to see how Camp Woody has worked so far.

The department and Bert Nash say they are happy to report it's working well.

Many agencies in Lawrence needed the CARES Act dollars, so the budget for the tent city was cut. Because of that, Rogers said they were not able to secure more sturdy structures for the campsite and had to use tents. That made heating a challenge but they decided to go with space heaters.

Rogers said the city wants to continue this project after March, possibly implementing something like the Veterans Community Project tiny house project in Kansas City.

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