The Will to Find a Way?

Lane County’s emergency shelters closed on June 5 amid reduced shelter capacity and a projected increase in homelessness

Pool parties, bars open until midnight and pick-up soccer games: These are some of the highlights from Phase Two of Oregon’s plan to reopen.

But for most of the unhoused people who stayed at Lane County’s two emergency respite centers in Eugene and Springfield, the end of Phase One meant a return to the streets.

The temporary shelters created during the pandemic closed on June 5 amid reduced shelter capacity and a potential increase in homelessness in the coming year, according to city officials. The city of Eugene and Lane County say they are working to identify locations for new organized campsites while shelter capacity is down.

 At a May 21 Lane County Poverty and Homelessness Board Meeting, Eugene and Lane County Joint Housing and Shelter Strategist Sarai Johnson said the county has 250 fewer beds than it did before the pandemic. That is because social distancing guidelines and other health restrictions have reduced shelter capacity at Dusk to Dawn and the Eugene Mission. Dusk to Dawn’s capacity, for example, has decreased from 256 to 125.

Local elected officials and homeless advocates say the challenge of addressing the county’s reduced shelter capacity is heightened by a likely increase in homelessness in Eugene during the next year. This is largely attributed to unemployment triggered by the economic shutdown in March.

A Columbia University study on homelessness related to unemployment predicts there will be 19,134 people experiencing homelessness in Oregon by the end of 2020. That figure compares to 15,800 homeless in Oregon in 2019, according to the state website.

The temporary emergency shelters in Eugene and Springfield were designed to support the ability of unhoused residents to shelter in place during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Lane County spokesperson Devon Ashbridge. They were funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and opened on March 26.

 Together, the shelters had a capacity of 172 people, with 140 at the Lane County Expo Site in Eugene and 32 at the Willamalane Memorial Building in Springfield. 

Roxann O’Brien, director of the emergency shelter at the Lane County Expo site, says it was “a very emotional thing” to watch her guests leave on the morning of June 5. “It’s a very sad situation.” 

The support team at the Eugene site conducted a survey asking where people would go when they left the temporary shelter. O’Brien says, “Almost all of them went back to the streets.”

Kris McAlister directed the temporary shelter program in Springfield. He is the co-director of Carry It Forward, a local care provider that contracted with the county to run the shelter. McAlister says the closure of the shelter was “very demoralizing for people.”

Five of the people who stayed at that 32-person emergency shelter were able to find alternative temporary shelter solutions, McAlister says.

McAlister, who experienced homelessness as a young adult, says the hardest part of packing up the emergency shelter in Springfield on June 5 was not having more options for where people could stay.

“Giving people tents and sleeping bags and saying, ‘Hey, while we were glad to have you here, and glad to help you while we could, we’re sorry but we don’t know where you can go,’” McAlister says. “That was the heaviest lift of any of the packing.”

Ashbridge says Lane County is working to find alternative temporary shelter solutions to address the immediate loss of shelter capacity.

She says the county is collaborating with Eugene and Springfield to identify vacant or under-used properties that can serve as safe, organized camping locations through the summer while other shelter locations remain below capacity.

Sanctioned campsites of this kind were part of the city of Eugene’s emergency response to the pandemic. Four temporary campsites with a total capacity of 40 were set up at the Hilyard, Amazon and Petersen Barn Community Center parking lots in April to enable social distancing.

In addition to its work in Springfield, Carry It Forward contracted with the city to support Eugene campsite operations. The sites closed June 19, according to Arwen DeSpain, who co-directs Carry It Forward with McAllister.

DeSpain says police were not called to the sanctioned campsites during the three months they were up.

City officials say city staff are working with community partners to identify new alternative camp locations for residents now at the designated temporary shelter sites.

Housed residents have criticized the city for  not creating more organized campsites to support unhoused people during the pandemic, suggesting this has led to criminal trespass and other activities in unsanctioned campsites that were not properly supported or regulated by the city and county. These complaints were laid out in a report by the Jefferson Westside Neighbors on camps in Monroe Park and near Westmoreland Park. 

In the past, resistance from housed neighbors has made it difficult to push through organized campsites, according to Eugene City Councilor Emily Semple. She asks,“Who wants to say to your constituents, ‘You’ve got no say?’”

Semple says it could be easier for people to open up to the idea of sharing their space if they give unhoused residents a chance to live in their neighborhoods. 

“When you get to know people as individuals, then they don’t become this monolithic scary homeless problem,” DeSpain says. “They are individuals that have specific needs that can be met if we have the will to find the way.”

Comments are closed.