Bulldozing the Homeless

Eugene offers no substitute shelter as it destroys homeless encampments

By Bridgette Butler and Mackenzie Ni Flann

Two weeks ago, city of Eugene workers and the Eugene Police Department evicted more than 100 unsheltered residents at their campsite near Washington/Jefferson Bridge.

Since July, we have been providing services and supplies and getting to know the people at this camp through our weekly outreach services. It was heart-wrenching to witness people pack up what they could and watch as their belongings (that were promised to be stored for later pickup) were thrown into dumpsters, their shelters ripped apart, and no clear idea where they would go next. As outreach workers in Eugene, we deplore the city’s continued sweeps on our most vulnerable community members. 

People experiencing homelessness in Eugene have been left largely without aid for years, and even more so this year despite being one of the most at-risk demographics to contract COVID-19.  When respite shelters closed with Phase 2 of the statewide reopening in June, people were offered nowhere to go and set up anywhere they could to “shelter in place.” 

With the re-opening, the city took away handwashing stations and porta-potties that had been initially installed in March, and swept camps multiple times through the summer, effectively throwing all concerns for public health in the dumpster with people’s belongings. 

Again and again, the Eugene police and city workers have followed wherever the camps set up, bulldozers and dumpsters in tow. They have instilled a traumatic and harmful cycle with each sweep, continually destroying the very supplies they have some outreach workers hand out, and scattering people (many with health concerns) who our team, along with other outreach workers, then have to locate again to re-establish care and replace basic survival supplies. In this way, the city exacerbates both the houseless crisis and spread of COVID-19 without offering any real solutions to either.

The city continually offers empty referrals to social service agencies as a means of deflection and shirking responsibility while they continue to disregard and violate basic human rights to safety, hygiene and shelter in the midst of this pandemic. 

At the latest sweep, the city passed out a document to refer the displaced community members to several supposedly available local shelter options. None of the information was represented accurately in regards to the available number of beds or proper referral protocol for placement at these sites. This document was a gross misrepresentation of several agencies, and it proved generally useless in providing assistance to those evicted. The only real assistance provided at the sweep came from volunteers from grassroots groups, our outreach team and concerned citizens.

The city needs to be exposed for its shortcomings and general disregard for the citizens whose needs they continue to ignore and whose numbers are only going to increase. In the coming months, the number of unhoused people in our community is projected to grow. 

There are empty parking lots (such as at the fairgrounds) where people could set up their tents or sleep safely in their vehicles. There are vacant dorms, hotels, gymnasiums and churches that could be utilized. There are innovative shelter options such as disaster relief tents and Pallet Shelters that could offer congregate shelter. There are options, and they need to be pursued. 

People need a place to reside as safely as they can without risk of bulldozers and police.

The sweeps against unsheltered people is unethical, against Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines and furthering harm and health risk in our community. Health care and housing are human rights. The displacement, criminalization and traumatization of our most vulnerable community members is a violation of these rights. We call on the city of Eugene and Eugene Police Department to stop the sweeps and find ways to support rather than destroy lives.

Bridgette Butler and Mackenzie Ni Flann are local outreach workers.

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