Ryan, who sleeps in a tent at the new Whoville homeless protest camp north of the U.S. Courthouse, says that he and his fellow campers are “managing” through the recent freezing nights. “It was cold last night,” Ryan says, declining to give his last name for fear of repercussions. “It was really cold last night. We could always use more blankets.”
With a newfound urgency brought on by the weather, Lane County released plans Nov. 13 to help Eugene’s unhoused population get indoors during this winter’s unpredictable days and nights.
“This is a very different approach than what we’ve had previously,” says Trevor Steele, assistant public information officer for Lane County. “It’s a much more proactive approach.”
Under the county’s previous administrator, Liane Inkster, Lane County had a much more contentious relationship with homeless advocates. At one point Inkster controversially called to “disinfect” the Wayne Morse Free Speech Plaza area after a protest camp for the unhoused occupied it.
A key element of the county’s new strategy, Steele says, is to work in partnership with local nonprofits and organizations: “It’s a much better use of taxpayer dollars for the county to work in coordination with the different groups that have been doing a really effective job at addressing some of these issues.”
According to Steele, there are four projects Lane County is working on: collaborating with Egan Warming Centers to provide new overflow locations at the Lane County Fairgrounds and Serbu Youth Services campus; taking a role in Operation 365 to help veterans find housing; establishing a new rest stop with Nightingale Health Sanctuary (NHS) for 30 people on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard; and looking at ways to house homeless youths before the crucial 15th night on the street, after which young people have an 80 percent chance of becoming chronically homeless.
Mary Broadhurst, a member of the NHS steering committee and an Egan Warming Center volunteer, agrees that it’s a notably different tack, and is eager to work with the county on the rest stop. Because of the proximity of the site to Autzen Stadium tailgaters, she says, the land will not be handed over until Nov. 22, after the last home football game.
Broadhurst hopes to start getting chronically homeless citizens — with and without disabilities — onto the self-governed site on Dec. 1 and temporarily into structures they can live in.
Though he will remain wary of the shelter plans until he sees them, Ryan is heartened that Lane County is taking more “compassionate” measures this season. “They’re kind of stepping up in offering that, and trying to help a social problem, you know? Which is good,” he says. “Keep my brothers and sisters warm. You gotta keep ’em warm.”