Following the closure of the Occupy Eugene encampment at Washington-Jefferson Park, only a handful of homeless people have taken the city up on a new living option: tent camping at sites for the homeless formerly restricted to car camping.
St. Vincent de Paul officials say they’ve received only six applications for tent camping in their overnight car camping program since the Eugene City Council voted to allow tents at those sites just before the Washington-Jefferson camp closure.
St. Vincent Manager Keith Heath said he’s been surprised by the modest turnout. Among those who have applied for tent campsites, some but not all had previously stayed at the Occupy Eugene site, Heath said.
The Occupy Eugene encampment was abruptly ordered closed on Dec. 20 amid growing safety concerns — especially after a man got into a fight there and later died from the injuries.
The camp housed about 150 to 200 people, many of them homeless.
Amid concerns about where the homeless would go after the camp closed, the City Council set aside $300,000 to pay for law enforcement at the encampment and costs for initiatives to deal with homelessness. But the council took that action on Dec. 14, when it assumed that the Occupy encampment would be allowed to continue through Jan. 11. Instead, the camp was closed before officials had much time to act on the council’s homeless initiatives.
Those initiatives, in addition to expanding St. Vincent’s overnight car camping program to allow tent camping, include creating a task force to recommend ways to alleviate homelessness — the group’s first meeting will be today — and creating an overnight shelter for homeless people with behavioral problems who are addicted to drugs or alcohol.
How to create such a shelter is expected to be among the topics the task force will take up.
Heath said he suspects the low turnout for tent camping at the car camps may reflect that many homeless people at the Occupy camp were not from Eugene in the first place, plus difficulties in getting the word out about the overnight camping program’s expansion.
“A lot of them got bus tickets to go back to wherever they came from,” said Heath, who predicted that interest may go up as information about the program is disseminated more widely.
While St. Vincent continues to accept applications, Heath said there aren’t currently spaces available for tents to set up. For those spots to become available, spots currently being used by homeless people sleeping in a vehicle would first need to be vacated by a current resident.
Occupants of the overnight parking program are limited to 90-day stays, and can reapply once a year. Heath said 50 people currently are living at the 22 car camping sites.
They must provide their own vehicle and undergo a waiting period before they are given a spot. St. Vincent says it continues to seek donations of used campers and trailers.
But the hope is that the number of camping sites will be expanded soon to 29 — which could allow new space for tent campers.
Heath declined to speculate on whether former Occupy Eugene occupants might be unwilling to apply for tent spots because of the overnight camping program’s rules, which include no alcohol, drugs or firearms and a requirement that residents keep their sites clean and orderly.
Police reports on the cleanup of the Washington-Jefferson site indicated that hazmat crews removed a variety of items that included syringes and liquor bottles.
As for creating a shelter for homeless people with addictions, the particulars aren’t yet clear, said Michael Wisth, a community programs analyst with the city.
One possibility might be to expand the Egan Warming Center — a multi-site refuge for homeless people that’s activated only when overnight temperatures drop into the 20s — though there are questions about whether enough volunteers could be found to staff such a program, Wisth said.
Like Heath, Wisth said the city’s homeless resources don’t appear to have been further strained as a result of the Occupy Eugene encampment’s closure.
“What this did was show we had a large population at Occupy that was already part of our community,” Wisth said. “These are savvy people who aren’t necessarily visible. I’m not saying they had a place to go, but they certainly have a daily routine.
“We haven’t seen a huge demand on our service providers since Occupy Eugene closed,” he said.
Wisth is one of the organizers of the city task force that will meet for the first time on Wednesday. Its charge is to address the issue of homelessness in Eugene generally, as well as to suggest ways to implement the homeless shelter and overnight tent camping proposals.
At Mayor Kitty Piercy’s direction, the city sent about 50 invitations to people to serve on the task force — including social service agency, city, neighborhood association and Occupy Eugene representatives. Wisth guessed about 30 will attend the initial meeting.
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