Steen Mitchell (left) and Sue Dockstader (right) hold up their signs in support of the protest against the sweeps. Photo by Emily Rogers.

Protesting Homeless Sweeps

Protesters speak out against trespass citations given to homeless people and their advocates

During the January ice storm that ravaged Lane County, the police issued more than 70 citations for criminal trespass. It’s not clear how many of those citations were to homeless people — however, it’s clear police issued some citations to unhoused people camped during freezing weather. 

Barefoot Defenders, a group created last fall aimed at aiding the houseless community of Eugene, claims the Eugene Police Department has been issuing numerous citations for a minimum amount of $790 for first-degree criminal trespass on Union Pacific property. 

On June 26, Barefoot Defenders protested outside of the Eugene Municipal Court while two hearings took place over trespass charges against houseless people and those aiding them during the ice storm. According to a press release by Barefoot Defenders, 57 trespass citations have been issued at multiple Union Pacific sites since January, with multiple people fighting charges in Eugene Municipal Court.  

First-degree criminal trespass is a class A misdemeanor, which can result in a $5,000 fine and up to a year in jail, and in the case of citations given along the railroad tracks specifically applies because the camping was on a railroad right of way.

The founder of Barefoot Defenders goes by the name “Jetty Etty.” She says she doesn’t use her legal name to help protect her family. On June 26, Etty went to court for her readiness hearing on two first-degree criminal trespass tickets and one count of interfering with a police officer. She will return to court later in July for a scheduled jury trial. Four other people, two housed and two houseless, also appeared in court on June 26 and will be back in court in August. They say they currently lack public defenders.

Etty says Barefoot Defenders has other protests scheduled for July 15 through 20 called “Where Do We Go?” She says these protests will consist of a five-day camp out and will provide resources for the unhoused population. 

Etty says that the first charge of first-degree trespass was issued on Jan. 10 when she was aiding a houseless woman along the railroad tracks near Seneca Road before the January ice storm.

“I got to my 73-year-old friend’s house, her tent was broken, and all I could see was tarps, and then I saw the tarps moving, so I rushed over to help her get uncovered, and there was so much water puddled up on top,” Etty says. “As soon as I saw her face, her lips were blue.”

Etty says she and a few others helped the woman rebuild her campsite and gave her some warm clothes and a Buddy Heater to help her survive the ice storm. “I came back the next day to check on her, and bring propane, and garbage bags as requested, and that’s when EPD and railroad police showed up and gave me my first citation,” Etty says. 

 She says the police issued the second trespass charge in March when she and three others went out to the tracks near Seneca Road to take supplies to houseless people with scabies and lice. 

Eugene Police Department spokesperson Melinda McLaughlin writes in an email, “In many cases, especially with planned clean-up activities like those happening recently in Eugene, [Union Pacific] agents and EPD will go through UP property, give verbal notice to anyone present and post written notices on apparently active campsites that a clean-up is happening and people should take their property and leave voluntarily to avoid a citation in the days ahead.”

Camping along the Union Pacific right-of-way in Eugene has been an issue for several years. On May 2, 2022, the city issued a civil penalty notice to Union Pacific, citing the railroad company with repeated violations of ordinances that prohibit camping, garbage accumulation and conditions that attract rats.

In 2023 Union Pacific Railroad racked up more than $216,000 in fines for failing to clear piles of trash from homeless camps along rail lines north of Franklin Boulevard for a half-mile stretch of the Willamette River. 

The recent sweeps of houseless individuals along the railroad is a part of Union Pacific trying to respond to the city’s citations, according to Kristen South, Union Pacific’s director of communications and media relations. “The cleanup is part of our continued efforts to keep the area clear and trespassers off the tracks for their safety and that of the train crew and community,” South says. Barefoot Defenders is demanding that the city drop the charges, stop criminalizing homelessness and work with the county to build 2,500 plus no-income permanent housing units. 

As Lane County is looking at temperatures in the 90s this week, the protesters say the sweeps are continuing along the railroad right of way of the Coos Bay Rail Line

According to Kelly McIver, Eugene’s communications manager for unhoused response, “No trespassing citations have been issued in the recent cleanup, and that includes for advocates who have come to the tracks to assist people in moving.” This has been Union Pacific’s preferred method of cleanup so McIver says he assumes this will continue to be the case.