Criminalizing Homelessness

Data show the unhoused are disproportionately ticketed in Eugene

Photo by Kenny Jacoby

More than one of every four people ticketed or arrested by Eugene police for minor crimes last year were homeless or lacked a permanent address, according to Eugene Weekly’s analysis of city court records.

The court records also reveal that more than one-third of the minor cases involved people who lacked a permanent place to live at some time in the past three years.

Eugene officials have long struggled with the city’s homeless population, public safety downtown and a shortage of social services. Police are often on the frontline of dealing with the homeless, many of whom face addiction and mental health issues. The city and police say they work to balance helping people while enforcing the law.

But social service advocates have also complained for years that Eugene police have “criminalized” homelessness.

The Human Services Commission in 2016 counted 1,451 homeless people in Lane County. The city of Eugene estimates the real number is higher -— nearly 3,000 people in the community have no home to return to at night.

At most, the homeless in Eugene make up about 2 percent of the people living here, but they were defendants in more than 35 percent of the court cases in 2016, according to EW’s analysis.

City officials and the Eugene Police Department acknowledge they have not studied how often the city’s homeless face charges, court judgments and even jail time.

“What would be the purpose of that?” EPD Chief Pete Kerns says. “I don’t need to know the numbers. We know that enforcement alone isn’t going to improve safety because the conditions that lead to homelessness aren’t going to be addressed through enforcement alone.”

Yet police and city officials continue to make policy decisions about dealing with the homeless and safety issues downtown without knowing how often the police bring charges against people who lack a permanent address.

Mayor Lucy Vinis says she has asked for and received information from Kerns about the number of citations for illegal camping outside the parks, but did not have information for or ask about the ratio of citations issued to homeless people relative to all citations issued.

“I don’t know the numbers,” Vinis says. “I don’t have any basis on which to judge it. I’m sorry; I don’t know how many [tickets] they give. I haven’t asked for it. I guess I could get it if I asked for it, but I just haven’t. It hasn’t come to me automatically.”

“They don’t ask the question because they don’t want to know the answer,” says Jennifer Frenzer, vice chair of the Eugene Human Right Commission, a longtime critic of police enforcement against the homeless. “If they had to look at the numbers they would see they would have to change their ways. And they do not want to change their ways.”

City Councilor Emily Semple says she has heard of no overt policy from the police to target the homeless, but that heavy enforcement of policies like the camping ban disproportionately affects the homeless population.

“I think the hope is you can make people feel so uncomfortable that they’ll go someplace else,” Semple says. “The problem is that there’s no place else to go.”

Without a doubt, police face a difficult job in dealing with the homeless and other people who frequent downtown. Police and city officials say officers work with many people who lack housing to help them find shelter, medical attention or other needs. Officers say that citing or arresting people is often the last resort.

How often they do so is revealed in court records. Most citations and charges for misdemeanors brought by Eugene police go to the city’s municipal court.

Our analysis looked at more than 1,800 people who were cited or charged by Eugene police for non-traffic violations in 2016, and the court records show that at least 25 percent lacked a permanent address at some point last year.

These records included those that list “general delivery” for the defendant’s address. In those cases, court mailings go to the local post office.

In other cases, court records list “transient” or an address for a social services agency, such as White Bird Clinic, Catholic Community Services and St. Vincent De Paul Service Station. EW didn’t count records as non-permanent addresses when the address line was blank, or where the defendant was listed as in jail or prison. (See sidebar for a detailed explanation of our analysis.)

The data show that 71 percent of the charges against the homeless or those without a permanent addresses come from a short list — criminal trespassing and drinking illegally in public lead the list, followed by violations of park rules, third-degree theft, prohibited camping and disorderly conduct.

The profile of charges looks different for people who aren’t homeless: Those same charges make up only half the cases brought against people who have a permanent address on file.

Social service advocates say the homeless, by virtue of trying to stay alive, are most vulnerable to charges such as trespassing, violating park rules and camping.

“The cost of continually criminalizing surviving without shelter is just the wrong way to prioritize the use of city staff and resources,” says Heather Sielicki, who serves on the city’s Homelessness Work Group. “Using law enforcement to address a social problem is not the right idea, and it’s not working.”

“There’s intent here, and it’s ridiculous,” says Kathy Walker, who is unaffiliated with the city but has dedicated her life to helping the homeless. “[The police] are trying to chase them out of town. I’ve been homeless before, but it wasn’t a war like it is now.”

Criminalized Sleep

Economics and a failure of state and local safety nets have increased the number of unhoused people on Eugene streets and potential conflicts with police. The records don’t indicate where the violations took place, but Eugene police’s data suggest a lot of the citations and arrests occur in downtown.

It’s here that Eugene police say they have increased their efforts to work with people in need rather than turn to their ticket books or handcuffs.

Officer Bo Rankin is assigned to the downtown team, where he patrols an area that includes the Eugene Library, the Eugene Station LTD bus stop and Kesey Square. In 2016, municipal court records show, Rankin had cited homeless people for violations and misdemeanors in at least 50 percent of his cases.

Rankin says that police officers stationed downtown get to know and care about the people who reside there, but they also have a duty to respond to complaints about trespassing or threats. He says often the only option police have is to issue citations or make arrests.

“Stacking 20 citations on a person may not correct their behavior,” Rankin says. “But on the other hand, the 100th time you contact that person, they may decide to change their life.”

“It’s not necessarily that the police are bad guys, it’s that the laws are bad,” says Ken Neubeck, chair of Eugene’s Human Rights Commission, who has been a frequent critic of the city’s failure to do more to address homelessness in Eugene. “If you’re going to penalize somebody with a citation or arrest for sleeping outside or in a doorway, but you’re not going to provide them with an alternative place to go, this is called criminalization of homelessness.”

Others have seen police actions that they find worrisome.

“Without a house, basically everything you do is illegal, like sleeping,” said Sue Sierralupe of Occupy Medical, a free health care clinic frequented by homeless. “Jail is not the housing we are looking for [to help] the unhoused. It’s fiscally irresponsible, inhumane and immoral.”

Sierralupe says her staff has seen police write tickets to people sleeping on the sidewalk. When Occupy Medical was stationed in the Park Blocks, she says, it was a common practice for police to sweep the area to write tickets to homeless people.

Sierralupe says continually citing homeless people just forces them to move elsewhere and doesn’t actually help fix the problem. She says it causes unhoused people not to report crimes because they’ve accumulated so many violations they haven’t paid. She also says it makes it near impossible for homeless people to get jobs or pay rent, because their credit is so terrible. The effect, she says, is “crippling.”

Decisions without information

“This is no surprise to us or to our downtown team,” Eugene police spokeswoman Melinda McLaughlin wrote in an email to EW when apprised of the data. She added that downtown officers “are actively engaged in carrying out the Community Outreach Resource Team (CORT) program. Muni Court, social services, judges and Eugene police and others also are engaged with helping this population through Community Court.”

Eugene police established the CORT program to identify the people who most frequently end up with citations or arrests and connect them with services that address their needs. Community Court allows an alternative to the typical justice system for dealing with low-level crimes by providing offenders access to social services and sentencing community service instead of jail time.

City Hall continues to make decisions — or delay decisions — about how to deal with the homeless in Eugene without any concrete numbers about how often police bring charges against people who lack a place to live.

For example, the Eugene City Council in March upped police enforcement downtown by banning dogs — a new ordinance that directly affects the homeless or other people who frequent areas around the library, Eugene Station, Kesey Square and other downtown gathering places. The city has more recently proposed banning alcohol in all city parks.

“The goal is not to impose penalties on people but to have a two-way conversation about what people need,” Vinis says. “[The police] know the folks that are really living in our downtown and have that conversation about can they can help. The city is really working to help people instead of penalize people.”

The city’s refusal to provide data or offer any kind of public analysis of enforcement against people without permanent addresses, however, has generated criticism in the community. Walker believes police do track the data, and says they don’t divulge it because it is “damning.”

“There’s no accountability whatsoever in EPD,” Walker says, “They don’t get down there and understand it; they just want to judge it from afar.” Walker says the City Council is perpetuating the problem.

Sielicki called for Eugene police to “provide real analysis” on what it’s costing citizens of Eugene to prioritize policing of the homeless population.

“If you’re spending that much of your police force on how it is, and it’s continuing not to work, you should weigh what it costs to provide actual services instead of just continued enforcement.”

Councilor Semple was not surprised that people without housing are more likely to be issued tickets, and said the city should prioritize giving people housing choices before pushing enforcement.

Neubeck says it’s “unfortunate” that neither the mayor, chief of police nor City Council knew the rate at which homeless people were being cited.

“This whole thing comes from the law enforcement approach to homelessness that’s taken by the city of Eugene,” Neubeck said. “You’re constantly faced with people who are doing things out on the streets that are often against the law because they have no other place to do them, and that cycle of adding onto people’s records is just going to continue so long as you don’t take an alternative approach.”

Kaylee Tornay, Francisca Benitez, Victoria Ganahl and Thomas Rivers contributed additional reporting. Data for this story were originally obtained with the help of the investigative reporting program at the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication.

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