What Homeless Problem?

by John Hubbird

When I ask people in Eugene about this area's homeless problem, I get a number of interesting responses. Mostly, however, I get puzzled looks, as if to say, "Well, if there is a homeless problem, it's certainly not my problem". Many seem unaware that -- even by conservative official estimates -- there are about as many homeless people in Lane County as there are in the Portland Metro area, or about 3600; yet there are only about 500 shelter beds locally to deal with it. Perhaps it's not surprising that Eugene's homeless residents have popped into full public view again on the steps of the County Courthouse.

On Wednesday 9/4/02, about 40 homeless people showed up at the Wayne Morse Free Speech Plaza on the steps of the County Courthouse. The courthouse's plaza is technically off-limits to the public between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m.. On Sunday night, 9/8/02, 40-50 police in riot gear showed up at midnight, whereupon the protesters stagged a prompt tactical retreat to sleep elsewhere for the night, only to return at 7 a.m. to resume their protest legally. Each night since then, they have voluntarily vacated the plaza at 11 p.m.

Protesters say they are responding to a wave of recent city raids in a number of low-profile unsanctioned encampments along the river and are upset about the wholesale confiscation of their belongings. They are asking the city to return their personal belongings and to allow homeless people to create self-governed encampmemts on public or donated land, provided that they are kept drug/alcohol-free, safe and sanitary.

A crime to sleep?
Eugene's Ordinance 4.816 prohibits camping anywhere in Eugene except on business, public, or church land with their permission, and only in vehicles; or in a tent in the back yard of a house with the resident's permission. The city estimates that there are as many as 100 homeless people staying in the city-sanctioned business, public or church sites, but there is no official estimate of how many are camping in back yards.

Any way you cut it, the ordinance leaves about 3000 homeless Eugene residents in the lurch, where they are criminalized to hide out in unsanctioned encampments, with no sanitation facilities, and where they are easily vicimized by violence-prone elements, and are routinely subjected to citations and sweeps by police and public works authorities. As our homeless population continues to mushroom, this hide-and-seek arrangement is becoming more transparently ineffective and inhumane.

City officials and nearby residents certainly have very legitimate concerns about safety and sanitation issues that arise in unsanctioned camps. Ironically, many homeless people themselves have the very same concerns, only more so, since they are the ones most personally impacted by such adverse conditions. Building on such common ground, maybe the city could invite the homeless protest leaders to participate in a community-wide collaboration involving all identified stakeholders to address these concerns.

City's point / protester's counterpoint
Several city staff members, city councilors and Human Rights Commission members have visited with the protesters . "It looks to me like the street kids moved from the Broadway Mall to the Park Blocks and then to the Courthouse," says Richie Weinman . The jury is definately out on whether the city will cooperate with any effort to establish a city-sanctioned encampment. "I seriously doubt this will ever happen in the City of Eugene," says Weinman, adding, "Eugene has tried that already and it just hasn't worked here". He cites an attempt three years ago to create a car camp, which fizzled due to public opposition and the inability to locate a suitable site. Weinman also says the city has no money for new programs, and that Eugene's land use and building codes won't allow such permanent encampments.

Protest organizers respond that Eugene has yet to create an ongoing self-governed, self-help intentional community like Dignity Village, run by and for homeless people. Rather, the Centennial Car Camp 10 years ago was administered alternately by two local non-profits (White Bird and ShelterCare) under contract with the city. The camp was seasonal and residents could only stay for up to 3 months, whether or not they had found housing. They also note that Dignity Village does not rely on public funds, as it is funded by private contributions .

Regarding zoning/code issues, Dignity Village attorneys recently discovered a state law (ORS 446.265 - sponsored by Rep. Al King of Cottage Grove) that allows any municipality in Oregon to establish up to two "transitional housing" encampments, with semi-permanent structures (such as yurts or sturdy tents) for "persons who lack permanent shelter and cannot be placed in other low income housing". The law effectively sets aside normal building and zoning code requirements for this use. Eugene's homeless protesters are asking Eugene to do the same thing here.

Another Dignity Village in Eugene?
Khi, one of the protest leaders, recently visited Dignity Village in Portland and was impressed. "Dignity Village has created a self-help community to be an ongoing cost-effective resource for other homeless people there", he says. "They have already blazed a trail for us by creating a working self-governance model that has not been tried in Eugene yet. I believe Eugene needs something like this. We've decided to call it Liberty Village" [For more information on Dignity Village, see their website www.dignityvillage.org]

On Thursday, 9/12/02, representatives from the nascent Liberty Village met with Richie Weinman and Greg Rikhoff [Program Manager for Eugene's Human Rights Commission] to explore possible solutions. The meeting produced no clear resolution, but may have provided an amicable beginning for continued dialogue. The next day, Weinman showed up at the plaza with Sgt. Mike Galick of EPD, apparently seeking to open lines of communication to minimize chances of a confrontation with police.

In conclusion
Regardless of how the protest at the courthouse plays out, having only 500 beds and a few legal campsites to serve a homeless population numbering 3600 -- and growing -- is a travesty, especially in a community so widely reputed to be compassionate and progressive. Until we recognize that homelessness is indeed a major community-wide issue that effects us all, the problem is likely to grow steady worse. Eugene can do better than criminalizing 3000 people each night for sleeping outdoors. We need to listen more carefully to what homeless people themselves are saying, and mobilize community-wide collaborations in partnership with them to create more effective, humane and cost-effective solutions.

by John Hubbird
community organizer, homeless advocate and co-founder of Dignity Village, who worked for 18 months on their behalf.

He can be reached at jhubbird@efn.org.