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On the Frontlines of the Unhoused

Eugene Needs More rest Stops

There is an old story about a village that dedicated itself to pulling children out of a river, until one day one of their members left the project and began walking up stream. “Where are you going?” someone asks. “We need you here!”  

The deserter replies, “I am going to find out who is throwing these children into the river!” 

I am one of those who fancied going upstream to stop the growing tide of homelessness, but I am increasingly finding that I must devote my time to pulling people out of the river. I cite just this one example from the day I write this, Dec. 8.

I was woken at 6:30 am by a call from our partners with the Egan Warming Center. The decision was made the previous day not to open that night based on the weather projection. Unfortunately, that projection turned out to be wrong and most of us woke to frozen roads. Schools were closed, many people took the morning off. But this brave soul was up most the night trying to help as many as she could.  

“Would we consider opening the church that morning so people can come in and warm up?” she asked. “Send some volunteers and I’ll be right down,” I replied.  

When I arrived at 7 am, I found seven people sleeping on the property. A handful of volunteers appeared and we gave our sleepers, and around 30 others, a temporary respite from the cold, a hot cup of coffee and a cold bowl of cereal. It was all we had on such short notice. (One dear volunteer showed up after hearing on KLCC that we would be open!)

One of those who came in from the cold was “Joe,” a gentleman in a wheelchair I had helped earlier that week at the request of Senior and Disability Services (SDS). Joe is 66, and suffered a back injury that has made one leg useless. He has several other health issues and was banned from riding the bus due to his unpleasant smell. 

SDS was close to getting him housed and said that he only needed a night or two in a motel. I found a motel on West 6th that assured it had a wheelchair accessible room available. When I showed up, however, the owner of the motel, seeing Joe and knowing that I was paying for his room, told me that the room was no longer available. 

I suspected discrimination against Joe and later confirmed in fact that the motel had a policy of not renting to homeless people in wheelchairs, a clear violation of the American with Disabilities Act. But I didn’t have time to fight that fight and found a room for Joe at Motel 6.  

Joe spent the following night at the Egan Warming Center and the night after that in the Dusk to Dawn program run by St. Vincent de Paul. There, difficulties getting to a restroom landed him back at the church, more desperate than ever. 

Thankfully, Joe had a champion at SDS who spent most of this very cold day working to get him shelter. With a little help from Rep. Val Hoyle, we got him admitted to the hospital for a full evaluation and after that, we thought, to a foster home in Sweet Home

Why Sweet Home? It was the closest facility the SDS worker could find that had a bed available. One challenge remained: transportation to the hospital. After waiting nearly three hours for CAHOOTS and needing to close the office for the evening, I finally loaded Joe into my vehicle and took him to the hospital.  

There I found both CAHOOTS vans and two very busy teams that had one of those days running from one call to the next. I informed them they had one less call to make.  

Back at the church, I had to tell three different people that, unfortunately, Egan would not be open tonight. The next day I learned that the Sweet Home facility would not take Joe, as he did not have a health care provider in Linn County. He was released from the hospital and told his only option was the Eugene Mission until a bed in a foster home somewhere in Lane County could be found.  

I tell this long story only to illustrate the crisis in which we are in: All the agencies working with the unhoused are maxed out.  

This year St. Vincent de Paul quadrupled the Dusk to Dawn program, where people are sleeping in mash tents, and it was immediately filled with a long waiting list. People who qualify for additional services like Joe cannot get them because there are few available spaces in Lane County.  

EW recently ran an article calling for a new public shelter downtown. I am skeptical that downtown is the right location, but the need for a new shelter in any location is abundantly clear.  

Because I serve on the Poverty and Homelessness Board, where we are working on plans to add 600 beds to our emergency system, I am well aware that building a public shelter, finding the funds to operate it and the location to site it will take years.

We don’t have years. 

I know personally of three people who have died on our streets just in the past two years. Their stories break my heart, like that of the one gentleman I found sleeping outside our office one cold morning a few years back. Hopelessly addicted and yet a very sweet, gentle soul who wouldn’t hurt a fly, he was found in a dumpster just a few months ago. 

Many more will die this winter, even with the good work done by the Egan Warming Center on those coldest of nights.

What is the solution to the very immediate crisis we face? 

The Eugene City Council has given a green light to at least one rest stop in every ward of the city. The work of Community Supported Shelters (CSS) and Nightingale Health Sanctuary has demonstrated that these rest stops are effective and help people get back on their feet. They are inexpensive and quick to build.

In addition to my work as a minister at First Christian Church, where we serve more than 20,000 people in need every year, I direct SquareOne Villages, the nonprofit that built Opportunity Village, which has provided shelter to more than 120 people in the past three years. 

This spring we will be building Emerald Village Eugene, using tiny homes for very low-income residents. We still need to raise about $190,000 to finish that project and we are working on additional projects in neighboring rural communities that cut the cost of affordable housing by 50 to 60 percent.

The long-term solution is permanent, affordable housing — the work “upstream” we are trying to do at SquareOne. But right now we need temporary shelter. 

It would take just $60,000 for CSS to construct and operate another rest stop for one year. I urge our community to get behind the expansion of these rest stops throughout the city so that we can respond to the immediate crisis at hand and people like me can get back to work on the longer-term solution of permanent, affordable housing, so that every person who seeks and deserves a home may find one.