Invisible but Still Here

People living in cars and on couches are still a part of Eugene’s unhoused community

“The housing and homelessness crisis are the same thing,” says Kevin Cronin, a member of the Eugene Housing Policy Board’s renters’ protection task force. “We have homeless people because of a lack of housing.”

When thinking about the homeless crisis, the first thing that might come to mind are people who are chronically homeless — on the streets and inevitably very visible. But we have a second crisis of people who are episodically homeless on a short-term basis, living in vehicles or crashing on friends’ couches. 

According to a study published in October last year by ECONorthwest about the Portland area’s homeless population, this second crisis of less visible, more short-term homelessness affects tens of thousands of households. 

The study notes that in 2015 the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development found that 125,000 renter households in the Portland Metro Area had “very low income.” Only about a quarter of those low-income households received federal housing assistance. Forty-five percent (56,000 households) had no assistance and “severe housing problems” such as paying more than half of income on rent and utilities — leaving them very vulnerable to episodic homelessness. 

Local homeless advocates like Cronin say this crisis is affecting a variety of people in Eugene, including those who are employed and even students, due to issues like high cost of living, hefty application fees and our current “landlord’s market.”

Cronin says one of the most affordable ways to create new housing is through ADUs (Accessory Dwelling Units — such as mother-in-law units or tiny homes on already existing properties). Though, he says, the construction of new ADUs has been slow-going.

“The city of Eugene has approved two permits for ADUs in the last year,” Cronin says.

With the current rental vacancies Eugene does have, renters are often overwhelmed by application fees and moving costs. 

“Many times renters pay $200 to $300 in application fees. It takes quite a bit to move into a new place,” Cronin says. “And so a lot of folks are staying on people’s couches — we call them ‘the invisible homeless.’”

These are typically people who have jobs, he says, but who still can’t find a place to live in the area’s current housing market. 

“I’ve had three folks stay on my couch in the last year who have a job and have savings and have applied for more than 10 apartments and can’t find a place to live,” he says. “You have landlords picking and choosing. It’s definitely a landlord’s market.”

Cronin says for people in this position, one of the leading causes of homelessness is eviction. “A no-cause eviction or even for-cause, you see people spiral into poverty,” he says.

The city of Eugene’s no-cause eviction law requires 30 days for tenants to move out, Cronin says. “Portland has a 90-day notice and they have relocation assistance, which really helps as a remedy to discourage it,” he says. “But also, the extra 60 days really helps people get their life together.”

Cronin’s task force visited the University of Oregon for a renters round table discussion and found that among students, the vast majority of whom are renters, no-cause evictions are incredibly common. 

“I asked, ‘Raise your hand if you know someone who has been no-cause evicted or you yourself has been no-cause evicted.’ Everyone raised their hand,” he says.

Sue Sierralupe, clinic manager of Occupy Medical, says homeless students are a large part of Eugene’s unhoused community, though they are rarely visible. 

“They’re couch surfing or they’re staying with a relative while looking for housing that they can afford,” Sierralupe says. 

Due to the inherent shame that comes with being unhoused, Sierralupe says, many of these people who have access to shelter of some kind (whether it be their vehicle or a friend’s place), don’t use the services they might need. 

“Their embarrassment or shame in this situation brings them down, away even more from resources,” Sierralupe says. “People come into our clinic not wanting to take resources away from ‘the real homeless.’” 

She adds: “In our system there is no greater shame than being economically disadvantaged, and it’s just luck of the draw.”

Sierralupe says being unhoused can spur other problems like drug and alcohol dependencies. Those sleeping in cars or other cramped spaces easily develop back pain and other muscle pain, which can lead to self-medicating, she says.

Being in the medical field, she says, the biggest thing she hopes to see in the future is single-payer health care.

Locally, Sierralupe hopes to see less criminalization of the unhoused — as well as more public restrooms, charging stations and available wi-fi.

“Don’t make it illegal for people to take care of themselves,” she says. “Make it easier for them to take care of themselves.”

Sierralupe also hopes that Eugene focuses more on its unhoused population and addresses “big box rental companies,” who she says are exacerbating the unhoused situation, echoing Cronin’s concerns of expensive application fees and constant no-cause evictions. 

“They’re making money off of this community left and right,” Sierralupe says. “Poverty is not a crime. Causing poverty is a crime.” 

Cronin also has similar hopes for the city to improve its housing crisis, but is skeptical, especially with actions like the City Council’s tabling the construction excise tax last year — a tax on both residential and commercial construction (including those “big box” apartment buildings). That tax money would go toward affordable housing.

The Eugene City Council is scheduled to have a work session Jan. 28 on “Housing Tools & Strategies” which will include discussion on the construction excise tax.

The renters’ protections task force is surveying renters in the area on their needs and creating a report from that data. Cronin says the task force should be done sometime in the spring. Then it will compile a report for ideas on solutions and hand it off to the Housing Policy Board, which will in turn communicate with the city council on how to act on Eugene’s housing crisis. 

“We need people to step up,” Cronin says.

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