Stuck in a Cycle

Eugene and Lane County need to help the unhoused during hot weather emergencies. Instead they keep ‘sweeping’ camps.

Paula has been without a home for nine years. A former wildlife firefighter who became chronically homeless after her house burned and her son died, she says, “I thought I was only homeless for a couple weeks, but I’m stuck in this cycle I cannot get out of.”

She asked to go by Paula due the dangers of being homeless. She says she’s known among fellow homeless folks and others in the community as someone who takes care of her campsite as well as homeless youth who she feeds and to whom she tries to impart job skills and even just basic table manners. 

But none of that mattered when, she says, Eugene police officers came through and “swept” her camp by the railroad tracks off Railroad Boulevard on August 17 as Lane County was dealing with a heat wave and smoke impacts from wildfires. 

Local advocates for the unhoused were made aware of the sweeps — some of which were occurring on days with temperatures above 100 degrees and days with an Air Quality Index (AQI) ranging into unhealthy levels — and began to request the city take a pause. Advocates included city and county officials, and journalists in an email discussion. 

Bridgette Butler of Black Thistle Street Aid writes that people from Paula’s site told them of an impending sweep and “that site has medically fragile elders and another person with a debilitating injury.” She writes, “To force anyone out from under their shade structures and into the heat is an act of cruelty and completely inhumane.”

Kelly McIver, communications manager for the city’s unhoused response, addressed the calls for a halt in moving campers and offered a response from officials on behalf of the city, saying, “City staff will not deliver new 72-hour camp removal postings during the heat advisory period, and will not enforce removal of pre-existing posted locations during the advisory period.” And the Eugene city manager’s office writes, “We have had a number of conversations with Lane County Public Health (LCPH) this week, including with Dr. Patrick Luedtke, the county’s senior public health officer, to explore the potential for LCPH to provide science-based recommendations to help inform changes to our 72-hour camp posting and removal operations during extreme weather and air quality events.”

Butler requested that the city issue a statement saying it would not sweep camps during extreme weather or smoke events.

Attorney Heather Marek of Oregon Law Center says the city doesn’t provide 72-hour notice in parks and open spaces because the city doesn’t think it’s required there, which is “a chunk of places people actually reside.” People experiencing homelessness, she says, by virtue of having nowhere to go, sometimes can’t avoid breaking park rules by doing things they need to survive in extreme conditions like putting up a tarp or tent for protection, or sheltering in place even after park hours.

She says the “consequences and trauma that I have seen” when camps are swept “leaves people very vulnerable and can compromise health and safety.”

Marek has “clients who have lost medication and had medical emergencies as a result. They have had medicine or medical related items taken, clothing and other things they are using to stay safe.”

Brittiny Raine of CORE (Community Outreach through Radical Empowerment) says that city swimming pools have closed when the AQI exceeds 150, meaning the air is unhealthy to breathe. “If they have that rating, why don’t we have a rating for camps?”

She adds, “If Eugene is going to call itself a city, it needs to act like a fucking city — cities mobilize and have emergency response protocols in place.” 

James Ewell, encampment focused outreach coordinator for Lane County Human Services, points out in the email thread that there is precedent “being set in Portland regarding ceasing sweeps and actually using the crews that normally are used for encampment sweeps to provide water, cooling supplies and referrals to indoor respite.” 

He writes, “From a street outreach perspective, not only are sweeps in these dangerous temperatures and smoke conditions potentially deadly for residents, it also makes it incredibly difficult for street outreach teams to maintain contact with the vulnerable clients they are trying to serve and connect to indoor shelters and respite.”

Ewell is speaking as a liaison between government agencies and outreach providers, not making an overall statement from the county, says Jason Davis, Lane County Human Services public information officer. That said, Davis says what people once thought of as periodic “heat events” are going to be “Eugene summer weather,” and the LCPH needs to give clear guidance to all agencies by way of clear thresholds.

The piece the county needs “to own and improve on,” he says, is making sure that during heat events, extreme weather or other emergencies, government agencies are acting on very clear thresholds for decision making. “We need to make sure it needs to be done this year so everyone is on the same page,” he says, adding that a response matrix is currently in draft form. 

Raine says, “We can’t find people because even though we work with young folks, who are more likely to have access to technology, if these items are lost or thrown away during a sweep they might not have access to their appointments or communicating with us.” She adds, “Out of the multiple states I have worked in, I have never seen anyone go through tents like they do here.” Eugene goes through a lot of tents because they are taken away, or even slashed during sweeps, she says.

Paula says she has seen tents slashed and in this last sweep she lost her stove, food, socks, shoes and a portable shower that was also used by homeless youth to wash hands before eating. “When they sweep my camp, it affects everything,” she says, including her ability to be clean and get a job. 

Paula says she had taken her son’s ashes and had them pressed into a locket that was the last thing he gave her before he died, and it is now gone.

McIver says he has heard from the police that the ashes have been returned to Paula, and “I believe other property was stored as usual,” but Eugene Weekly was unable to reach Paula, who remains homeless in the smoke, before press time to confirm.

“In Eugene,” Paula says, “average people don’t understand that it’s not the homeless that are the problem. It’s the system.”

She continues, “There’s a lot of us out here. And more coming every day, more elderly. These people should be in a program or home somewhere being taken care of. These are human beings — we are all somebody’s mother’s children, part of a family somewhere.”

Update: After Eugene Weekly went to press Paula left a message and says that her son’s ashes have not been returned to her.

Find out more about CORE Eugene at and Black Thistle Street Aid at Oregon Law Center is at

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