Photo by Todd Cooper

Criminalized In a Pandemic

Eugene adjusts homeless response, but advocates are asking for better solutions

In a global pandemic and during a rainy winter, unhoused people don’t have many options for places to go. The continual clearing out of camps and ticketing by the city of Eugene hasn’t helped, either.

After months of criticism about the ways Eugene addressed homelessness during COVID-19, the city restructured its policies to allow some urban camping. But a growing coalition of advocates say it isn’t enough. They instead call for wider and more drastic reform for the age-old story — to stop criminalizing the homeless.

The camping rules were most recently adjusted in December 2020, according to the city, which sent out a press release in late January  detailing where people were not allowed to camp. Individuals are not allowed to camp in wetlands, some natural areas and the city’s stormwater facilities. Campers are also not allowed to stay within 50 feet of private property and within 300 feet of playgrounds, park shelters and the city of Eugene transitional housing locations.

But the coalition of activists, including Stop Death on the Streets, Stop the Sweeps Eugene, Community Alliance of Lane County and several other groups, are urging the city to stop all sweeps and provide basic sanitation services to all camps, including dumpsters and restrooms, while clearly defining places people are allowed to camp.

Nate Mitchell is an activist and mutual aid volunteer. He says he was unhoused in Eugene in the 1990s, leading him to help those struggling with homelessness today. In a call to Eugene Weekly, Mitchell says he is helping a 70-year-old woman move from her former residence in a tent at the Trainsong Community Camp to a spot miles down West 11th. 

 “The campers are currently being evicted by EPD on behalf of the railroad company,” Mitchell explains. The camp is located between Roosevelt Boulevard and Bethel Drive. 

Mitchell says the woman, who goes by Gigi, became unhoused in Eugene after she couldn’t keep up with her bills. When Eugene police came to clear the camp, they saw Gigi by the tracks as she was trying to find her cat, Mitchell says. They fined her $790 for being too close to the tracks. Mitchell helped Gigi load up her stuff in a truck, helping her move to the new site, near several other campers and a portable toilet.

“This is where I was sent,” Mitchell says of where he took Gigi, adding that it’s far away from the social services and amenities that were near the Trainsong camp. He clarifies that the city did not provide a place for Gigi to go. “The nearest laundromat is at Fred Meyer. I’m guessing that’s about three miles away.”

Mitchell says he acknowledges and appreciates that the city has changed some of its rules around camping, but he emphasizes that the city can and should be doing more based on the resources it has. For example, he says, the Lane County fairgrounds were used for Holiday Farm Fire victims and for the unhoused during the smoke, and the city has access to emergency funding because of COVID-19.

And while Eugene continues to sweep camps, people are forced to leave their COVID pods, rather than stay together.

“It really feels like lip service,” Mitchell says. “They say one thing and do the opposite. It’s the Eugene model that I’ve seen so far.”

Eugene Public Affairs Manager Brian Richardson says in an email that the city has been working with Lane County throughout the pandemic and says the decision to adjust the enforcement process and camping rules is to “align with recommendations from the CDC, Oregon Health Authority and Lane County Public Health.”

“We’ve continued to adapt to the dynamic situation,” Richardson says. He cites the newly established  camping microsites, additional rest stops and overnight car camping sites as places for unhoused people to go.

“There are locations in the city’s parks, natural areas and rights of way that are not acceptable for camping at any scale.”

For sanitization, Richardson says they continue to provide restrooms and hand washing stations throughout the city. He points to a map on the city’s website that maps out where these stations are.

“By providing these criteria, our hope is that people camping will be in compliance and shelter in place,” he says, adding later that the city will continue to refine its system and processes.

Camps are still subject to being cleared. Mitchell says there is one located on 5th Avenue that received a complaint, Mitchell says, but they haven’t received the city’s 24-hour notice to leave.

And if unhoused people wind up in jail, they face more dangers. Outspoken homeless advocate Eric Jackson was recently scheduled to finish serving a sentence at the Springfield Jail for a trespass offense from 2019. In emails both to Gov. Kate Brown and local city leaders, Jackson, who is unhoused, is asking to have his seven-day sentence waived, citing severe health concerns if he were to get COVID-19.

Other advocates, including the Civil Liberties Defense Center, have spoken out after hearing of Jackson’s jail sentence, asking that it be waived. His request has yet to be granted.

“They can step up, they can be better,” Mitchell says of the local response to the plight of the homeless. “People need a place to shelter in place, even unhoused people.”

This story has been updated.