Laura Mills sits in the shade atop a thin piece of mattress padding outside of her blue tent. She’s nursing an Eagle cigarette and staring into a series of trees blocking the sun. She has no plans of moving.
It’s May 20, and Mills first rolled her wheelchair into a field of tall grass near 18th and Chambers, east of Albertsons, to set up camp during a global pandemic two weeks ago. She says she’s been homeless in Eugene for three years.
“This virus has been a blessing, kind of,” Mills says. “It’s wonderful. The stress isn’t coming down so hard. We’re not getting ticketed. But we’re all worried about when this is going to end.”
Mills and hundreds of other unhoused people in Eugene have felt some relief during the pandemic, as many are experiencing for the first time what it’s like to not be ticketed for sleeping in public, or being forced to relocate their camps at a moment’s notice.
The Eugene Police Department says officers have not written a ticket for prohibited camping since March 15, about a week before Oregon Gov. Kate Brown issued a statewide stay-at-home order.
Based on last year’s pace, EPD would have written dozens of tickets for prohibited camping in that same period of time — and that doesn’t count tickets issued to the handful of people running homeless protest camps, who received scores of tickets last year.
The absence of ticketing comes as a big change in strategy for the EPD, which in the past has used ticketing and Community Court programs as a means to help the unhoused access resources and hopefully get off the streets.
Physical distancing requirements meant homeless shelters throughout Eugene had to cut back on the number of available beds. The Eugene Mission, which normally sleeps around 350 people a night, could only house 260.
City officials opened an emergency shelter at the Lane Events Center. The police stepped back from enforcing anti-camping against people living in tents who would normally get cleared out.
But as Phase 2 began to unroll on June 5, that changed. City officials moved on some of the unofficial camps, such as the one at the park at 18th and Chambers, even though restrictions at shelters have left an even greater shortage of beds than usual.
When asked about what comes next, the EPD said in an email: “The city continues to collaborate with government partners, social service providers, neighborhood leaders and other community partners to explore opportunities for additional sheltering options in light of the COVID-19 impacts to the local shelter capacity.”
Since the shelter in place, the city of Eugene has worked to support the unhoused — increasing coordination with White Bird Clinic to help people access resources; providing portable restrooms and sanitizing stations around the city; having mobile outreach teams made contact with campers; and providing temporary, fenced camps in two separate parking lots at Amazon Park.
Finally, numerous unofficial camps, such as the one on 18th and Chambers, were allowed to exist. The campers were given access to toilets and trash bags and encouraged to create leadership amongst themselves.
Tensions between the unhoused, their advocates and police have existed for years in Eugene, as city officials continue to try and find a solution to Eugene’s growing unhoused population.
EPD’s leniency towards the homeless during global pandemic raises questions about whether or not ticketing and citing people for illegal camping is helpful at all. It also raises questions about what will happen when things return to normal — when there’s once again no place to go.
Tall Field of Grass
A week after Mills set up camp at 18th and Chambers, more tents began appearing in the field. Campers milled about their tents, cleaning and talking amongst themselves. Everyone seemed to know each other, and there was enough room for the tents to be relatively spread out. The city provided a toilet that got cleaned only once a week leaving it sometimes too full to use.
Wayne Martin, local chaplain and homeless advocate, says the camp started out as a loosely connected series of tents, with campers taking advantage of the open space during the shelter-in-place order.
Mills is from Cottage Grove, but has spent most of her life in and around Eugene. She’s been unhoused for the past three years after exiting an abusive marriage, made worse by injuries to her legs and back that make getting around without a wheelchair almost impossible.
She chain smokes as she talks about her son in Texas. She seems to always be in a great deal of physical pain.
“I have nine pins in my ankle after getting hit by a drunk driver a few years ago,” Mills says. “It’s still hard to get around.”
As the camp continued to grow, members of the Friendly Neighborhood Association, with Martin and Eugene police Lt. Doug Mozan, began to hold weekly meetings with members of the camp to try and figure out ways to ensure it wouldn’t get shut down during the pandemic.
By May 20, about 15 tents were spread throughout the entire field. They ranged in size and quality — some big, with large tarps and one even with a welcome mat. Some were smaller, two-person tents, almost hidden by the tall grass. The tents were far enough spread out that everyone could have their personal space, but it was clear there was a real community.
Mozan helped pass out a sheet of paper with a list of guidelines to help keep the camp from being shut down. Among the recommendations were that camps house no more than 10 people, with 12 feet between each individual tent.
The campers yelled back and forth to each other, making jokes and introductions. They’d collectively placed a few of the campers into a leadership role, where they made sure the camp followed the guidelines laid out by the advocates who had visited them.
It took more than 15 minutes for the advocates to go to each tent to let the campers know they were having a meeting before about 20 people formed a semi-circle. Mozan stood out in his police uniform, as he spoke to the distracted group of masked faces.
“Parks and camping don’t go together,” Mozan says. “So, we’re in a park right now and this is only allowed to continue because of COVID, right? And like anything, we’re always being asked — what is the thing that causes camps to get shut down quickly? I was asked that question, so I helped come up with a list of things that are sure recipes for disaster.”
The list had been typed up by House Everyone, a coalition of housed and unhoused activists in Eugene fighting for access to affordable housing. There were to be no fires, needles or human waste. Any criminal activity could potentially shut down the camp, and a 10 pm quiet time was put in place to avoid bothering neighbors.
Mozan encouraged the campers to identify some kind of leadership — someone who can make sure the area stays clean and that the other guidelines are met. He then promised nothing would be shut down in the upcoming weeks without a warning.
“There won’t be any surprises for you guys,” he says.
“So that means you won’t come in at a moment’s notice, when it is raining outside?” one of the campers asked.
“At four in the morning playing ‘Flight of the Valkyries’?” Mozan says. “It’s not going to happen.”
Chad Hughes, one of the original campers, agreed to make sure the camp stayed clean and that the campers had everything they needed throughout the day.
Hughes’ camp was farther into the field than the others, his yellow tent barely visible behind the waist-high grass. He’s tall, blonde and eccentric, always either distracted or trying to make someone laugh — often both at the same time. A woman living in the camp comes up to Hughes and gives him a bouquet of small flowers picked from the field. A man nearby yells something unintelligible.
“He’s got Tourette’s, we’re trying to work with him,” Hughes tells the woman.
Hughes, who’s been homeless off and on for his entire life, says he’s learned to work with EPD while still finding a way to protect his civil rights. He says he works with the unhoused like himself and knows their lives are more complex than most people understand.
“There’s a lot out here that people don’t know,” he says. “There’s a lot more out here then tents and camps. It goes a lot deeper than that.”
Hughes looks around at the tents, bicycles, sleeping bags, food wrappers, cups and plastic. A mask loosely hangs from his neck and he points out a spot in the field he thinks people have been using as a toilet.
“I like what’s going on now,” he says, “but we need less trash.”
Nowhere To Go
On Friday, May 29, a notice informed the campers that they would have a week before the camp would be cleared. This clearing and relocating coincided with the Phase Two reopening of Lane County and the planned closing of emergency shelters.
The camp had swelled to include more than 25 tents spread out over the entire field. Tents had sprung up on both sides of the bike path, as campers continued to attempt to hold weekly meetings.
They were given an extension, but by June 10 the camp was gone and the field was mowed. According to Martin, anything the campers couldn’t take with them was tossed in a dumpster or taken away by city workers. All that was left were two overflowing dumpsters on the side of Albertsons, brimming with garbage and spare bike parts. Leftover tents, blankets and pillows littered the ground surrounding the dumpsters, with a man piecing through the trash. His name is Russell Thompson and he says he used to live here. He says he doesn’t know exactly where he’s going now.
“They didn’t say where we could go,” Thompson says. “A lot of us have PTSD or social anxiety. That’s why I can’t be at the [Eugene] Mission, because I can’t be around a lot of people. I have to stay away from those kinds of situations.”
On June 10, Martin helped Mills and two other campers from the cleared-out 18th and Chambers site to a grass patch owned by the Bureau of Land Management off 5th Avenue, near Bailey Hill Road in west Eugene. There’s no bathroom, no dumpsters, no trees. They are the only ones living there.
Martin checks on them every few days, and on June 15 he brings two frying pans and a sleeping bag. He finds Mills in her blue tent fanning her face with the top of a cardboard Little Caesar’s pizza box.
“I’m burning up,” Mills says. “There’s no shade.”
She’s received her stimulus check, but she says the money goes fast. Two bags of ice for $6. She’s never had to camp this far away from downtown, and it worries her. “I mean, I can’t walk,” she says.
The coronavirus isn’t gone, but the moment the pandemic gave her and others who are unhoused to camp without fear of eviction has disappeared. Mills mourns the loss of convenience being so close to things that help people like her survive.
But most of all she misses the sense of being part of something — the people, the security, how people worked together.
“There were stores, dumpsters and bathrooms,” she says. “And there was unity.” ν
This story was developed as part of the Catalyst Journalism Project at the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication. Catalyst brings together investigative reporting and solutions journalism to spark action and response to Oregon’s most perplexing issues. To learn more visit Journalism.UOregon.edu/Catalyst or follow the project on Twitter @UO_catalyst.