LAWRENCE, KS (KCTV) - Throughout the Lawrence Community Shelter, there are enough beds for about 90 people, but with COVID-19, not only have they added screens, you’ll notice the top bunks are gone.

Capacity is less than half due to social distancing and that’s just one reason the city is getting federal CARES funds for this new initiative.

“How are folks getting access to hand sanitizer and bleach and things like that that are meant to be prophylactic?” Lawrence Community Shelter Executive Director Renee Kuhl questioned. 

Kuhl says people have set up unofficial campsites along the Kansas River or on train tracks for years. That’s not a result of COVID-19, but COVID-19 elevated the risk. 

“We’re especially concerned about can those people get connected to medical care that they need? Can they get connected to quarantine or isolation if they need to do that?” Kuhl questioned. 

At the shelter, they have access to bathrooms, showers and other hygiene needs, even laundry. None of which is available in the woods. 

That’s where this plan comes in. A sanctioned campsite with tents for 20-25 people and three trailers that contain toilets and showers.

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“We’ve ran into needles on the ground,” Lawrence resident Anita Sotomayor said. 

Sotomayor walks her dogs by the camps on the river and lives three blocks from the proposed sanctioned site, Woody Park. A group including City of Lawrence Parks and Recreation, Douglas County, and the Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center are asking the city commission to grant a special use permit for up to 180 days. 

They say they’d have a code of conduct: no drugs or alcohol, weapon searches, and so on with a management partner to supervise. 

One woman in the neighborhood asked off camera, so what happens to those turned away? 

Sotomayor and her daughter are sympathetic to the need but worry the reality won’t match the goals put on paper.

“Are they going to be equipped to handle what’s supposed to happen down at this camp with enforcing?” Sotomayor questioned. 

“It doesn’t seem like it will create longer lasting change,” neighbor Chloe Sotomayor said. 

To be clear, this plan is not about getting everyone out of the impromptu camps. No one involved expects it to go that far. They just want to reach folks who are willing to be supervised to keep them healthy and connect them with services to transition to permanent housing.

The Lawrence City Council approved the ordinance just after 10:15 p.m. Tuesday. 

You can watch the city council meeting below. 

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