Lawrence Central Rotary’s own Stephen Mason spoke about his recent experience managing the only sanctioned homeless camp site in Lawrence last winter. Recreation Programmer at East Lawrence Recreation Center, Steve volunteered to be a camp site monitor, a role which evolved into the site manager job.
In the summer of 2020, the City of Lawrence began to plan for a temporary campsite to provide shelter and support for the homeless through the coldest season of the year. Lawrence Parks and Recreation took the lead, working with partners that included Burt Nash, Salvation Army, Memorial Hospital, Lawrence-Douglas County Health Department, Just Foods, a neighborhood association and AmeriCorps volunteers. The CARES Act provided funding for the project.
The campsite, known as Woody Park Camp, was located on a baseball field north of the hospital. Campers were local; the city was not inundated with out-of-towners seeking services. The camp housed thirty-three adults, mostly singles. The site had portable restrooms and laundry services, and the cooperating agencies provided other significant services and support. When Woody Park Camp closed on April 1, 2021, eleven of the thirty-three people served found housing.
There was a screening process for residents, which excluded sex offenders and violent offenders. Virtually all the campers suffered from some aspects of mental illness, however. Although it was a “dry” camp, but addiction behaviors were a problem. Staff received confrontation training, and hospital security provided good support. KU Med Center Peer Support people were especially helpful.
Steve indicated that managing the camp was a huge challenge which he performed in addition his regular job responsibilities. He said he was glad he did it. His knowledge of city operations and resources in the larger community was put to good use. Steve said, “I knew who would answer their phone at 2:00 a.m. when we had a problem.”
He believes the program merits a second year, but the scale of support services needs to be addressed. The biggest challenge was providing sufficient mental health services as existing resources were hard pressed to meet the needs of the camp. Lawrence is the smallest city to sponsor a winter camp for the homeless.