Meanest Streets, Part 3

by | Jun 30, 2011 | Uncategorized

In 2005, the National Coalition for the Homeless listed the 20 American cities where people experiencing homelessness seemed to be most unwelcome. We are looking at the top five, then and now. Las Vegas, Nevada, and Atlanta, Georgia, have already been considered, and so has Little Rock, Arkansas.

Back in 2005, this was named the second-worst urban area in which to experience homelessness:

#2 Lawrence, Kansas [THEN]
After a group of downtown Lawrence business leaders urged the city to cut social services and pass ordinances to target homeless persons, the city passed three ‘civility’ ordinances, including an aggressive panhandling law, a law prohibiting trespass on rooftops, and a law limiting sleeping or sitting on city sidewalks.

In 2006, Jesse Zerger Nathan reported that activists were working to create a Housing Needs Conference, encompassing people in danger of becoming homeless, and people trying to buy houses, as well as landlords, developers, service providers, and bureaucrats, for reasons which Nathan clarifies:

If, as these activists suggest, a city can tackle affordable housing it will, in turn, be addressing a range of issues from homelessness to neighborhood and community development.

The conference, held in June of that year, was written up by Ron Knox, who has noted that the attendees asked three questions of themselves and each other:

What are the greatest unmet housing needs, and how can city leaders meet them?

What housing problems should be solved first?

How can the city provide the best possible support to existing programs?

Lawrence’s Housing Needs Task Force had been formed in 2004 in reaction to a report originating from Kansas University. Forty percent of renters in the city were found to be spending over 35% of their total income for housing. This is called a “housing cost hardship,” and we have talked about it before:

Just a little while ago, the experts were telling us not to spend more than 30% of our income on rent. Now it’s more. As responsible citizens today, we are supposed to feel as wise and mature about paying 35% as we felt a few years ago when the experts advised us to put a lid on at 30%.

Flash forward to July of 2010, less than a year ago. At a meeting of the Coalition for Homeless Concerns, one of the people who expressed his thoughts was Richard Price, a resident at Lawrence Community Shelter. The shelter was always full, he said, and there was literally nowhere else to go. And people turned away from the shelter were issued tickets for “camping.” Brad Cook, the coalition’s co-chair, added that homeless people can’t pay the fines, and ended up in jail, costing the city’s taxpayers a lot of money.

A lot of interesting things have happened since then in Lawrence. Earlier this year, plans were afoot to move the Lawrence Community Shelter to an industrial park. Not a neighborhood, not a block on which there were several schools and day-care centers. Not a downtown area full of nervous boutique owners. A vacant warehouse in an industrial park, which is said to be near the jail. But even that location would not satisfy.

Chad Lawhorn reported,

The business park’s board of trustees have argued the covenants allow only business, industrial and governmental uses to locate in the park. They contend, among other issues, that the shelter is prohibited because it is a residential use… The shelter’s special use permit that allows it to operate downtown is set to expire this spring.

In March, the City Commission voted to let the shelter stay one more year. And then, something amazing happened. Despite the shelter’s tenuous hold on existence, members of the Mustard Seed Church stepped up to refurbish it anyway, inside and out, and if you hit the link you’ll see a splendid set of before-and-after pictures. There is also a full account of the project from church member Tatyana, who says,

The results were not just about new paint, refinished floors, cleaner windows or brighter surroundings… Shelter staff described the atmosphere among the residents the next day as ‘calmer and more peaceful.’

And which American metropolis was, in 2005, deemed to be the #1 meanest city?

#1 Sarasota, Florida [THEN]
After two successive Sarasota anti-lodging laws were overturned as unconstitutional by state courts, Sarasota passed a third law banning lodging outdoors. This latest version appears to be explicitly aimed at homeless persons. One of the elements necessary for arrest under the law is that the person ‘has no other place to live.’

Surprisingly, because this is, after all, Florida, there appears to be some progress. A substantial piece by Carrie Wells in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune spoke of a “transformative shift.” Being singled out as the most heartless place on the map probably started the change in consciousness and conscience for the people of Sarasota. But things didn’t really start to happen until January of this year, when The Economist magazine published a rather unflattering article that gave Sarasota a “black eye.”

Almost immediately, 200 people showed up for the first workshop about a 10-year plan, and further workshops were spoken of, in many areas of civic life that have an impact on homelessness. Even so, the negative attention was not powerful enough to motivate the housed citizens to repeal repressive laws.

Wells wrote,

The thousands of people living in the woods, on friends’ couches and on the streets have long taken issue with policies that made it illegal to be homeless, implemented five years ago. Those policies will likely still remain, with the 10-year plan instead focusing on securing funding for housing assistance and homelessness prevention programs.

There are an estimated 7,500 people experiencing homelessness in Sarasota and Manatee counties, and fewer than 900 emergency shelter beds, so it’s obvious how much needs to be done. But no matter how well-intentioned the citizens might be, nothing can be done without money, and money is what nobody has these days.


Source: “A Dream Denied: The Criminalization of Homelessness in U.S. Cities,”, 2005
Source: “National Coalition Pegs Lawrence KS as 2nd Meanest City Toward Homeless,”, 06/01/06
Source: “Conference seeks housing solutions,”, 06/18/06
Source: “Costly Camping for Lawrence Homeless,” Change of Hearts KS, 07/14/10
Source: “Judge rules against Lawrence homeless shelter; move away from downtown up in the air,”, 02/14/11
Source: “Lawrence Community Shelter Update,”, 05/12/11
Source: “New goal: A roof over everyone’s head by 2021,” Sarasota Herald-Tribune, 02/14/11
Image by Mr D Logan (Miles Smith), used under its Creative Commons license.