Every year, the Lane County Human Services Commission releases its annual “Homeless Point in Time” count. The homeless headcount statistics were obtained in a 24-hour period on January 25th, 2017 when a group of county workers scoured the city attempting to gain an understanding surrounding the issue of unhoused individuals in Eugene. The findings were published on May 26th.
Searching through known homeless hotspots such as alleyways, food pantries, emergency shelters and under bridges, volunteers came to a definitive number of 1,529 people without a place to live. According to Pearl Wolfe, Human Services Secretary for Lane County, this is a 5 percent increase from 2016, or 78 more people.
“There is a serious lack of understanding for what’s really going on in the lives of the unhoused,” Kimberly Hawes, crisis worker for White Bird clinic said. White Bird was formed in the 1960s as a response to the growing number of homeless youth in Lane County. Their services range from crisis intervention to drug and alcohol programs. They are often seen as the first line of defense when dealing with the homeless in emergency situations. Hawes has observed an influx of people coming to Oregon seeking refuge.
“I’ve noticed a lot of ‘travelers’ to the Oregon area because we have better resources than other places, yet still we barely have any resources ourselves,” Hawes said.
Sofi Hart is a first year Lane student who currently resides in the heart of downtown at Titan Court, a student housing complex that sits above Lane’s downtown campus.
“When I first moved in, I didn’t feel safe at all. I was continuously accosted and harassed numerous times by homeless men downtown,” Hart said. “With that being said I have also met a lot of good people who found themselves on the wrong side of the system. I believe that drugs and mental illness play a large part in the homelessness issue in Eugene.”
According to Lane county’s official website, of the 1,529 people counted, 435, or 28 percent, were noted as having some form of mental illness, behind those identified as chronically homeless, which made up 41 percent.
People experiencing homelessness often end up using a number of costly emergency services. The Lane county report states that the daily cost of care at Sacred Heart’s In-Patient Behavioral Health Unit as being between $2,613 and $3,045. This isn’t factoring in the costs associated with shelters, warming centers, and detox facilities. Hawes believes that these services could do a better job of focusing on the mental health aspects of individuals who need them
“I believe the biggest obstacle we face is the lack of prescribers for mental health issues. People are unable to see someone who can prescribe medications. These people often turn to drugs to cope with their mental health,” Hawes said.
Locally, roughly 16 percent of individuals counted as homeless identified as having chronic or serious alcohol/substance abuse issues. Nationally, 38 percent of homeless people experience alcohol or substance abuse, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless. Hawes believes that one way to tackle this effectively would be to set up mandatory contact between the different social services available to the unhoused.
“I’ve observed organizations attempting to communicate better. The client outreach coordinator for our team has been reaching out to hospitals attempting to open a dialogue surrounding the clients we see and what they need in terms of help, but we have a long ways to go,” Hawes said.
In April, The Register Guard reported that the Eugene City Council has begun to voice support for publicly funded homeless shelters. Counselor Chris Pryor was quoted as saying “We’ve talked about this for years, and I’m feeling optimistic that we can for the first time move beyond talk.” The councilors debated the merits of a single structure as opposed to multiple smaller facilities, but no concrete plans have been laid.