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How Does Lawrence rate on meanness?
People Experiencing Homelessness Speak

Executive Summary (please click here to download as a pdf)

Helen Hartnett, Ph.D., Toni Johnson, Ph.D.
University of Kansas, School of Social Welfare     

In January, 2006 a survey was released by the National Coalition for the Homeless and the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty named Lawrence, KS the 2nd “meanness city” to the homeless in the United States.  The survey focuses on the increase in ordinances that make behaviors such panhandling and sleeping on sidewalks illegal and the media coverage which represents public distain and often hatred for those living on the street.  A critical perspective missing from the study were views of those currently experiencing homelessness in Lawrence.

This study was developed with the intention of providing a voice to individuals in the homeless community.  With the assistance of Masters level students in an advanced community and advocacy class in the School of Social Welfare at the University of Kansas, the study was developed and refined in the spring of 2006.  Using survey methods we asked individuals, who are currently homeless, to share their experiences with businesses, the police and the general public. The survey instrument used was a modified version of a survey developed by the Portland State University Capstone Project on Homelessness and Poverty in Portland, OR.  The survey was administered during 3 different time periods and locations in April, 2006 in Lawrence.  A total of 56 people participated which represents a 50% response of the total estimated population 1 of those homeless in Lawrence.  The following information is a summary of key results of the survey.  It is hoped that these results can be used for policy/program formulation and public education.

Who Are We?
The mean age of the 56 individuals responding to the survey was 41 years with the majority (75%) of respondents being white males.  As table 1 reflects, 24.5 % of the respondents are veterans and 42% suffer from a physical, psychological, developmental or other disability.

Families are not clearly reflected in this study.  We are unable to tell from survey responses how many of the individuals are in a committed relationship or if their partners are with them.  Only 7.1% of the sample stated that they lived with family or friends while 59% stay in an emergency shelter and 34% live on the street. 

Approximately 40% of the respondents reported having minor children but of those only 26% reported having their children with them.  Whereabouts of the majority whose children were not with them were not reported.  Three respondents said that their children resided with their biological mother, 2 stated that their children were in foster care and 1 had a child living with grandparents.

How long have we been experiencing homelessness and how do we explain why we are homeless?
The majority of the respondents (42.9%) have experienced homelessness for more than 2 years, while 41.1% have been homeless less than one year and 16.1% for 1 to 2 years. Additionally, for 63% of the people this is not their first time experiencing homelessness. When asked how many times people have been homeless in the last 3 years, the mean response was 2.4 times. This indicates that a large percentage of the population in Lawrence is what is defined as chronically homeless. This is important when considering the barriers that people face in finding and maintaining housing and income.

The most frequently cited reason for the cause of homelessness was inability to afford rent (51.8%).  Loss of job and alcohol and drug problems are tied for the 2nd most often cause for homelessness cited by respondents (33.9%).  The third and fourth most often cited causes were lack of affordable housing (30.4%) and family problems (23.2%) respectively.  Respondents who check “family problems” as a cause of homelessness were not asked to define the term.  We noticed, however, that 77% of respondents who checked “family problems” as a cause of homelessness also checked unaffordable housing or rent and 46%, almost half, checked loss of income or job.  Table 2 reveals that fact that physical/mental disability rounds out the top 5 identified causes of homelessness.

There is a pervasive myth that many individuals are homeless by choice.  When given the chance to indicate personal choice as a cause of homelessness, 78.6% said that they were not homeless by choice compared to 21.4% who stated that homelessness was a choice.  Of the 12 respondents who declared homelessness as a personal choice, 11 of the respondents checked other causes as well.

The survey provided a space where respondents could provide additional causes of homelessness.  The themes listed below were identified from responses to that question.  The number, in parenthesis after the theme, reflects the number of respondents who identified some variation of the theme in their written answer.

Themes identified

  • Employment challenges, including transportation (6)
  • Financial difficulties balancing rent with food and other basic care needs (3)
  • Relationship problems (3)
  • Childcare complications (2)

How Long Have We Been in Lawrence and Why Did We Come?
Although we might like to believe that people who experience homeless are not from Lawrence, thus taking away our community responsibility for them, many of the people have been in Lawrence (33.9%) for more than 2 years. Twelve and one half percent have been here for 1 to 2 years, while 53.6% have been here less than one year. This indicates that many of the people experiencing homelessness in Lawrence are not just passing through or “transients”, but rather have been here for a while.

It is also important to consider why people come to Lawrence. The results indicate that people come here for the same reasons we all have. The majority of respondents (64 %) came seeking employment opportunities or to be with family or friends (30.4%). The plethora of academic institutions drew the third highest response at 23.2% while 21.4% stated “other” as the reason for being in Lawrence.  Those indicating “other” as a reason all seemed to be seeking a way to increase the quality of their lives.  Examples include: “a place to raise kids”, “respite from crime”, “affordable city”.  The remaining responses include, born and raised here (14.3%), availability of services (8.9%) and music/art or community reputation (5.4%).  Only 1.8% of the respondents are in Lawrence due to release from jail or prison. Again, it is important to note that services available are not bringing people to Lawrence.

How are we treated by local businesses?
When respondents were asked if they believed that they were ever denied employment because an employer knew of their homelessness the numbers were almost evenly divided with 42.6% stating yes and 38.9% stating no.  Approximately 18.5% stated that they didn’t know.  In contrast, when respondents were asked if they were ever fired from a job because an employer knew that they were homeless 72.2% answered no while 14.8% said yes and 13% answered with don’t know.  When asked what assistance they received from business owners, responses include food, money in return for work, or information about work.  Four respondents mentioned positive behaviors or actions such as transportation and help with gear.  Overall, respondents perceived treatment from business owners to be equally positive and negative.  The mean score was 2.9 on a scale of 1-5 (1=very positive, 5=very negative).  This is important to note as it influences peoples ability to gain employment.

How are we treated by Lawrence Police?
When respondents were asked how frequently they were stopped by the police while experiencing homelessness the mean score was 5.3.  When asked about the number of violations received the mean score was 1.7.  The relatively low number of violations reported was somewhat surprising given the increase in the number of ordinances that criminalize behavior associated with homelessness.  Seven of the violations reported were for drinking in public and 1 was for riding a bicycle on the sidewalk. When asked what assistance they received from police, responses include food, provided or helped with transportation (i.e., bus ticket or paid for taxi), or provided protection.  With a mean score of 2.7 on a scale of 1-5 (1=very positive, 5=very negative), respondents perceived treatment from the police to be slightly more positive than that of the business owners. 

Overall Thoughts about the Publics’ Attitude Towards Us
Sixteen respondents reported crimes that they perceived to be motivated by discriminatory attitudes against homeless individuals.  There were 3 reports of physical beatings or muggings, 5 reports of theft and 8 reports of poor emotional or rude treatment. 

Respondents were asked to use three words to describe experiences with the general publics’ overall attitude toward individuals experiencing homelessness in Lawrence.

Forty four individuals responded with descriptors that fell into 3 categories that were coded as negative, positive and apathetic.  Below are examples of each category.

Descriptors of the publics’ overall attitude toward people who experience homelessness in Lawrence


It appears as though people experiencing homelessness in Lawrence do face barriers in employment and community life. It may indicate that we are a mean city. Lawrence may not be mean in terms of ordinance enforcement, but the general attitudes of the community, as described here contribute to our overall inability to creatively and as a collective group of people provide meaningful alternatives.

1. Data published in January 2005 by the City of Lawrence reported the homeless population to be 112.

National Coalition for the Homeless
2201 P Street NW
Washington, DC 20037-1033

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Page last modified: Oct. 11, 2011

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