Who cares about the homeless?

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In my brief time as a member of The Torch, I’ve had the privilege of covering the rapid upswell of political involvement in and around Eugene. One of my first assignments as a reporter was covering the second Women’s March back in January, when thousands took to the streets of Eugene, and cities around the world, to protest the policies of the Trump administration.

Two months later, I watched as local teenagers stood on the steps of the federal courthouse in frigid rain and demanded gun reform in the wake of the Parkland shooting. For a kid born and raised in rural South Carolina – where most people’s idea of “political unrest” is shouting at the nightly news broadcast – seeing so many people gather together to defend basic human rights for themselves and others was deeply moving and inspiring for a rookie reporter.

This spirit of activism runs deep in Eugene’s culture. A former neighbor of mine, a Veneta-born college professor now well into his 80s, rarely missed an opportunity to regale me with tales from his time as a radical activist. His obviously-embellished stories about hunger strikes and falling in love with FBI informants nonetheless romanticized Eugene’s place in the history of Oregon activism–a small, tight-knit community anchored by a staunch belief in progressive values and respect for humans and the environment alike.

But despite long-time Eugeneans’ rose-colored opinion of themselves, the city has failed to live up to its own progressive beliefs–especially when it comes to the homeless.

The city government’s disdain for the unhoused is old news. The recently-enacted downtown smoking ban is the latest city council ordinance designed to target the homeless population, following on the heels of last year’s wildly unpopular and quietly-repealed dog ban. While the smoking ban was marketed as a solution to a public health issue, the enforcement of the new non-smoking rules in the downtown core has been selective, at best. In the three months since the ban took effect, not once have I, or any of my smoker friends, been so much as spoken to by any authorities for smoking or vaping downtown, even while strolling past uniformed Eugene police officers giving a ticket to a group of buskers for smoking and possessing an unlicensed dog on Broadway.

While the City of Eugene’s unstated policy toward the unhoused is disappointing, it’s not surprising. After all, they have order to uphold and an economy to diversify; the city must find it difficult to attract new businesses and investors to a city with a “homelessness crisis,” as a 2017 editorial in the Register-Guard called it. While Eugene and Lane County have taken tiny steps to address the so-called crisis – Lane County formed a Poverty and Homelessness Board in 2017, and the city has worked with White Bird Clinic to provide some emergency medical assistance to those without regular access to healthcare – little has been done to address the root causes of homelessness.

But, to the city’s credit, they recently approved plans to open a temporary winter shelter at the gravel pit that once held City Hall, which would have provided a day shelter with running water and restrooms as well as a covered and secure dusk-to-dawn campsite. It would have been the second such facility in the area: Lane County also runs a “semi-permanent” homeless shelter on Highway 99. While the proposed downtown site would have only been active during the winter months and did not include any long-term proposals to find permanent shelter for Eugene’s homeless population, it signaled that the city was at least trying to treat the unhoused with a modicum of compassion. It’s not like they were using the City Hall lot anyway.

Then the business owners protested.

Faced with pressure from a group of downtown businesses and Chamber of Commerce, the city reneged on the downtown shelter plans, instead announcing a vague partnership with the county to expand the Highway 99 site or another location elsewhere. Days after the plans were cancelled, the Eugene Weekly published a copy of a joint letter from the concerned businesses, thanking them for reconsidering and revealing the 27 signatories. Many of the companies represented in the letter are fairly new to the city, including a Portland-based marijuana dispensary and several startup tech companies–not exactly the deep-rooted community members they portray themselves as in the letter.

The City of Eugene and the people and businesses that live and operate here can’t have it both ways. They can’t take to the streets twice yearly in defense of democratic values, social justice and other progressive values while simultaneously thumbing their nose at members of their own city who are forced to sleep on the sidewalk. They can’t work for a revitalized, vibrant and diverse downtown area for denizens of Eugene while ignoring the root causes of homelessness – like a shortage of affordable housing and the myriad barriers to receiving affordable healthcare – root causes that at least a few of these businesses may have indirectly influenced.