Lawrence’s new tourism development project – a hobo jungle on the north bank of the Kaw River just west of the Mass/Vermont Street bridges – is drawing lots of statewide attention and is finally rounding out the city’s decades-long quest for stature among the nation’s most Liberal enclaves.
But despite moving the city toward its long sought aspiration to become a Leftist municipal ascendancy, this new initiative scums up the town and the river bank and is getting mixed reviews from some area residents and businesses who aren’t near as much on board with turning the town into another Portland, Ore., as city leaders are.
Yes, it seems LFK’s proud tradition of social liberalism has finally brought the city to bridge that chasm between being just another progressive university town full of pizza shops, pink hair and lip piercings to collapsing utterly into a full-on sludge pot of rotting dignity – the kind illustrated so succinctly these days by fermenting cesspools like Seattle, Portland or San Francisco. And as that rapidly metastasizing mass of tents, cardboard boxes and tarp shelters grows along the bank of the Kansas River and further chokes out the business community of North Lawrence, soon to spread down to the posh eateries and overpriced bars and shops of Massachussetts Street, the Blue Dot liberals of Lawrence will come to realize the price of the social conscience for which they’ve always yearned.
It wasn’t exactly the dream Rick Renfro had in mind. The owner of Johnny’s Tavern – the original location north of the River with the dubious honor of being next-door neighbors with the Kaw Jungle – shut his business down in protest for part of the week earlier this month in an effort to get city officials who created the mess to do something about it. He told city council members at a meeting he’d recorded some 80 confrontations between hobos and his staff or his customers. Some of those times he called the cops. At a recent meeting some hobos and other Blue Dots castigated him because he had told several he didn’t want the homeless in his restaurant, even if they were paying customers.
How dare he? Doesn’t every customer want to hang out at a bar and enjoy a burger and beer next to a guy who smells like feces and campfire smoke? Who doesn’t want to watch the Chiefs game with someone who swears the players are all robots, Ulysses S. Grant is still alive, and who hasn’t brushed his teeth since Labor Day?
But there’s an awakening catharsis in calling a spade a spade the way Renfro has done. It’s being shared by other Lawrence residents and business people who, while keeping silent in order to preserve their places among the Lawrence enlightened, know full well the blight that city leaders have brought upon the residents and businesses by encouraging the tent encampment.
The flaw in the thinking was, of course, responding to an increase in the homeless population by making that homeless population more comfortable. Two years ago Lawrence spent better than $300,000 in Covid funds to create a temporary homeless camp complete with heated tent shelters, restroom, shower and laundry facilities in Woody Park near Lawrence Memorial Hospital. That turned out to be problematic with hospital devotees and neighborhood residents, so the city re-wrote its ordinance against camping in public areas to create the Kaw River Hobo Camp at the expense of businesses in North Lawrence. Unsurprisingly, the camp is growing – and so are incidents of crime, harassment and the expected blight on the performance of nearby businesses.
Make no mistake. This is a problem created by Lawrence elected leaders because they lacked the backbone to handle the problem created by the homeless. The community offers several avenues to put homeless people – at least those who hope to eventually find permanent housing – into a pipeline of support directed at finding jobs and residences. Those resources are easily overwhelmed, and the problem’s made worse by do-gooder public policy that encourages homelessness instead of discouraging it.
It’s okay to say we don’t want homeless people in our communities because they’re a blight. It’s okay to say the homeless themselves are primarily responsible for bootstrapping their own lives just like the rest of us. It’s okay to resent the invasion of public spaces by those who bully their way into them expecting to take advantage of our sympathy and our good nature. And it’s okay to jail those who break the law, even if they’re homeless.
Lacking resolve from city government to build public policy based on those points, Lawrence businesses and taxpayers will continue to be the victims of bad judgment spawned by Liberalism, which has put the city right where its chosen path intended.
– Dane Hicks is publisher of The Anderson County Review in Garnett, Kan.