Homeless find ally in Occupy

No matter what the Eugene City Council decides on Monday, Occupy Eugene and its high-profile encampment have served a valuable purpose by refocusing the community’s attention on homelessness, social service providers say.
The council is to vote on whether to let Occupy Eugene continue its camp of mainly homeless people in Washington-Jefferson Park beyond the Thursday deadline the council set earlier this fall. The protest group wants to remain in the park and work with city officials to find a place to build a permanent camp for the homeless.
The present camp of about 150 to 200 people, along busy West Sixth and Seventh avenues, has put the spotlight on the increasing number of homeless people in the Eugene-Springfield area.
Various public and private nonprofit groups provide housing, food and services to homeless people, including St. Vincent de Paul of Lane County, the Eugene Mission, Food For Lane County, Catholic Social Services and ShelterCare.
But with an estimated 4,000 homeless people here and reduced or stagnant government funding, the agencies that provide housing cannot keep up with the demands for shelter.
“There is a huge need for more housing,” ShelterCare Executive Director Susan Ban said. “As much as we do, it’s a drop in the bucket to the demand that is out there.”
ShelterCare provides housing for people, including those who have been diagnosed with a psychiatric disability.
The publicity about Occupy Eugene’s homeless camp has forced people to think about the difficult issues related to homelessness, Ban said.
“It’s exciting to me that a whole other segment of the community is beginning to understand how challenging and complex the issues of homelessness are for us,” she said.
Occupy Eugene participants want the city to provide a long-term site that could be used to build what they call a homeless village.
Shelters, kitchens and showers could be built with donated materials and volunteer labor, including from Occupy Eugene activists, supporters, labor union members, and the homeless themselves, the group’s representatives say.
But St. Vincent de Paul Director Terry McDonald said permanent homeless camps don’t work.
Many homeless people are transitory, have drug and alcohol addictions, or mental health issues and “don’t work well in crowds at all,” he said. “I don’t know how you can run those camps permanently.”
McDonald and other social service experts noted that the city sponsored a seasonal camp for the homeless between 1993 and 1995 in the parking lot of the Science Factory, near Autzen Stadium. The camp, which allowed homeless people to live for part of the year in their cars, trucks or campers, eventually was shut down for a variety of reasons.
The camp was not easy to manage, said Richie Weinman, the city’s former community services manager.
“You are putting people with a lot of stresses in one spot,” he said. Disputes were common in the camp. Fights would break out for different reasons, including when people would have sex with people other than their partners, Weinman said.
“It was hard to keep the peace,” Weinman said. “It was one big drama.”
Many campers were unhappy with the supervision provided at different times by ShelterCare and White Bird employees.
“It won’t be easy and it won’t be cheap,” Weinman said of a permanent homeless camp. “And once it’s established, there will be as much demand as there was before it started.”
After the car camp was closed, the city eventually began a program that allows homeless car camping at various sites in the city. The city provides funding for a program manager, plus money for portable toilets and garbage collection for the campsites.
Under contract with the city, St. Vincent de Paul manages 29 campsites, where homeless people live in campers or trailers parked at churches, businesses or on private property with the permission of owners. With more funding, the agency could operate more such sites, McDonald said.
“From a human services provider, something is happening here, and it’s a good thing,” he said.
Three options from City Manager Jon Ruiz for the council to consider Monday range from allowing the camping to continue for a period yet to be determined, with the possibility that the deadline could be extended; to continuing the camping for a set period with a hard deadline; to revoking the camping permission and having city officials work with Occupy Eugene to remove the tents and other structures in the camp “as soon as practical.”
Three of the eight councilors have been opposed to the camping, and four councilors are believed to be in favor.
That leaves City Councilor Chris Pryor as the likely swing vote. If Pryor votes against allowing more camping, that would force Mayor Kitty Piercy to break a 4-4 tie. Piercy has been sympathetic to Occupy Eugene.
In a recent interview, Pryor said he was still trying to decide how to vote.
Pryor, who works at United Way of Lane County, said the idea of a permanent homeless camp doesn’t appeal to him.
“I am part of the human services world that doesn’t think living in a tent is a step to solving homelessness,” he said. “The long-term solution is to get people into jobs and housing. That really is the long-term solution to homelessness.”
But Pryor said he would consider continuing the camping privilege if Occupy Eugene is willing to work with city officials on a “tangible, realistic next step.”
If Occupy Eugene “wants to be a sincere partner, maybe we can work on a solution” to homelessness, he said. “I’m not going to keep granting waivers.”
McDonald, of St. Vincent de Paul, declined to say whether he thinks the council should continue to let Occupy Eugene camp in the park.
In addition to generating interest in homelessness, McDonald said Occupy Eugene has engaged homeless youth. The group’s gatherings and workshops in the campsite are giving the youths something to do other than simply try to survive on the streets, he said.
Occupy Eugene is “bringing them from a more feral society to one that is more civil, and I think this is very important,” McDonald said.