Last week during the frigid -11 degree weather that lasted for three days, Lawrence Mayor Brian DePena and his homeless coordinator Kelly Birchall put together a plan to help the homeless and other Lawrence residents who had no heat.
First, Mayor DePena mobilized the police and fire departments to visit all of the homeless encampments within the city to let people know that they were setting up warming shelters for anyone who needed it.
Then, they coordinated with local organizations and volunteers to provide food, clothing, blankets and other items to those who chose not to take advantage of the warming centers.
For three straight days every city department was activated to do wellness checks on those who were in the streets, neighbors who had lost power, and even those few individuals who were sleeping in their cars to stay warm.
It was a huge undertaking, pulling together dozens of people to manage the cold crisis in a city as poor as Lawrence.
But, Mayor DePena didn’t hesitate, he didn’t wait for the state or the federal government to offer assistance. He didn’t depend on the Red Cross or anyone else. He took the bull by the horns and made sure the people of Lawrence had emergency services when they needed it, on the spot, during the crisis.
Mayor DePena set up a Mayor’s Task Force, holding a meeting of two dozen people from different agencies and volunteer groups to coordinate the city’s response to the deadly cold.
The Movement Family, (TMF) – a group of volunteers that feed the homeless – was able to mobilize a dozen people to bring food and other items to the homeless, even giving out hot chocolate, blankets, sterno cans, and hand warmers.
For 60 straight hours the TMF workers revisited each site, coordinated to get some of the homeless to the warming shelter, and for those who refused, kept in touch to make sure they were provided for throughout the ordeal.
Regular citizens who learned about the effort on social media contacted volunteers on Facebook to help replenish the supply of blankets and hand warmers. Off duty city workers continued to help out even after they went off the clock.
But, if not for the leadership and full attention of Mayor Brian DePena and his staff, this effort would not have been nearly as successful as it was.
In fact, representatives from other communities have contacted Lawrence to find out how Lawrence went with zero deaths from the cold.
The real answer is that the mayor of Lawrence responds when a crisis occurs, while other politicians hold press conferences and then wait for someone else to do the hard work.◊