Change the Camping Ordinance

Homelessness and COVID-10 make the need more pressing

By Wayne Martin and Sara Burant

Quietly and with the necessity borne of the pandemic season, 30 unhoused individuals took up residence in tents and tarped structures on the edge of Westmorland Park, just east of the Albertsons at 18th and Chambers.

As near-by neighbors, we welcomed this community, helped with food and supplies, and enjoyed spending time with its residents. We were happy to provide them with Sanipac bins and removal services.  A handwashing station and portable toilet were placed there by other groups.

With access to a grocery store, the West Eugene bike path, and bus lines, it seemed an ideal location for folks experiencing hardship. We hoped the encampment might remain throughout the duration of the COVID-19 threat, when sleep-in-place measures might be safely lifted.

Coincidently, most of us recall the chaos and crime which assaulted our city over the weekend of May 29-31. Several businesses in the Jefferson Park area were broken into by vandals and rampant looting of property was the result. Members of the Eugene Police Department worked long hours to curtail, and then prevent further destruction of city and private property. Their work and its leadership were extremely valuable.

But there is a sad irony here, which brings us back to the eviction of unhoused people in Eugene and elsewhere in the county. Just as the looting along 7th Avenue was horrifying and heartbreaking to so many, it is no less disturbing to us when temporary sleeping quarters are forcibly closed by civic and police action, with residents scattering to places unknown.

It happens whenever law enforcement officers receive a complaint about tents being pitched in their vicinity.  When the city acts on these complaints, the unhoused must pack up their belongings and evacuate, leaving behind what cannot be readily carried. These possessions are, like all of ours, things that make daily life a little easier, more comfortable, and more beautiful.  Those living next to Albertsons placed potted flowers, welcome mats, colorful fabrics and prayer flags around their habitations.

On Wednesday morning, June 10, at the field near Albertsons, Public Works crews and police arrived to carry out eviction orders.  Residents gathered up as many of their belongings as they could.  Whatever they could not fit into their backpacks or bike trailers was picked up and hauled away to be stored or disposed of.

This may not seem like looting to those of us who live safely and securely. But gathering up what poor people are unable to carry is, in fact, seizing their personal property.

It is true that Eugene City Ordinance 4.815 makes sleeping outdoors illegal. The ordinance was especially enforced during the 1970s, when outdoor rock concerts attracted large numbers of people, many of whom camped wherever they could.

Times have changed. But the ordinance, despite current homelessness and COVID crises, remains in effect. Not only is camping prohibited, but the city neglects to provide toilet facilities, handwashing stations, trash containers and picnic tables in public spaces and along well-traveled corridors.  Furthermore, small storage lockers for valuable items and legal papers are unavailable.

This discriminating ordinance needs to be changed, amended or legally set aside until local lawmakers are committed to safeguard the well-being, rights and property of people experiencing homelessness.

We blame neither the police nor sheriffs for this dilemma. As we have witnessed, officers often, though not always, try to show some compassion and restraint. They do not make the laws. On occasions when they’ve sought to delay or mitigate their actions, they have our respect.

The question we all should be asking is: why does the burden of a camping ban live on well past its sunset years? In other words, why does the city continue to enforce the dismantling of property and of lives, especially now?

It’s time for the compassion, creativity, skill and will of our policymakers to supersede the current, excessive, and expensive practice of social eviction and endangerment, and the physical and psychological looting of our fellow citizens.

We urge both city and county: Please use your experienced staffing to set up a program that addresses immediate outdoor sheltering needs, not just midterm TAC Report strategies. It will save you tens of thousands of dollars, relating to police, legal, jail, emergency medical, and eviction expenses.

Meanwhile the field next to Albertsons has been cleared and mowed, nearly all vestiges of our unhoused neighbors’ presence there removed—except for the ghosts of what was, and still is, possible.  That is, if only we muster the leadership, the collective will and capacity for mercy and true justice.

As has been said too often, we can and must do better.  Other university towns have.

In closing we cite this verse from an ancient source:

“Will you be aligned with leaders who legitimize harm by statute?” (Psalm 94:20)

Wayne Martin and Sara Burant live in the Jefferson West Neighborhood of Eugene.

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