Lane County officials have cited legal concerns in directing Eugene police not to disband a growing homeless encampment in downtown Eugene.
The plight of the camp on edge of the the county-owned “butterfly” parking lot near the county courthouse, comes as local officials wrestle with the increased visibility of homeless camps along major city streets. At least 60 people were sleeping at the camp Friday morning, an organizer said.
For several weeks, homeless people have been camping on public public in downtown to protest the city’s stance on enforcement of its outdoor camping ban, before recently moving to the parking lot at Eighth Avenue and Oak Street.
The protest came in the wake of a federal appeals court ruling that city ordinances that criminalize homeless people for sleeping or camping on sidewalks and in public parks when they have nowhere else to go violates the U.S. Constitution. The city of Eugene maintains its outdoor camping ban isn’t impacted by the ruling largely because it fines rather than jails violators.
But county officials have concluded that any enforcement action by the city to remove the camp would run afoul of the recent ruling by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals as there is no indoor shelter to direct them to.
“Because we don’t have that mechanism yet in the community, we aren’t legally able to remove that camp,” county spokeswoman Devon Ashbridge said.
On Friday morning, the county ordered the campers to temporarily relocate so that crews could clean the property ahead of the Saturday Farmers Market. Many set up camp across the street along the curb that fronts the Wayne Morse Free Speech Plaza.
Eric Jackson, the camp’s organizer, said the camp would remain until the city changed the enforcement practices of its outdoor camping ban to ensure campers are given a formal warning that they are trespassing and also the chance to pack up their belongings to come into compliance. While the city bans outdoor camping, which involves bedding, a fire or a stove, it has no restrictions on outdoor sleeping, which doesn’t involve those items.
Jackson, who joined other campers in cleaning up the property, said he had hoped the protest camp would have “ended last Friday or the Friday before that.”
In the past week or so, police officers have removed homeless encampments near the Eugene Public Library at 10th Avenue and Charnelton Street, and along West 2nd Street near Chambers Street in the Whiteaker neighborhood, according to a city email and a president of a neighboring business.
On Oct. 1, officers cited 10 campers near the public library after they didn’t heed earlier warnings and an attempt to connect them to social services, according to an email from police Capt. Sam Kamkar.
One camper, whom Kamkar identified as a “protest camper” from Washington-Jefferson Park, didn’t move.
“Simply put, this person, though she is eligible for housing, is refusing to vacate or accept any help,” the police captain wrote.
Craig Tompkins, president of Burton Saw, said officers removed Tuesday people in a large camp set up across from his company’s offices on West 2nd. It’s unknown if any of the campers were cited.
The action came several weeks after city employees removed homeless people who had set down on Chambers Street between 2nd and 5th avenues.
Last Saturday, former Mayor Kitty Piercy wrote to city councilors to raise concerns about the number of homeless people gathering next to the mission at West 2nd and Chambers and the accruing piles of trash in the area. She also noted the numerous curbside camps.
“This will keep growing. I know you are working on a shelter solution and I appreciate that, but it appears to me there needs to be a humanitarian, safe, interim action. A shelter will take time in any case,” wrote Piercy, who lives not far from the intersection. “I am of the opinion you do have an emergency that is growing and calls for some action.”
Mayor Lucy Vinis responded that she is in “urgent conversations” with City Manager Jon Ruiz and Police Chief Chris Skinner in an effort to find a location to divert the campers.
“People are not feeling safe in their homes and businesses,” she said.
A city spokeswoman said those conversation are ongoing.
City leaders have committed to spend $8.6 million over the next 18 months to beef up public safety, which does include some initiatives to expand programs where homeless people can legal camp outdoors at secured locations. Another initiative would set up a center where homeless people could shower, do laundry, receive meals and store belongings. The location hasn’t yet been determined.
But providing more emergency indoor shelter beds remains only a proposal at this point.
A consultant reported earlier this week that Eugene has a significant problem with its population of unsheltered homeless. It recommended the addition of 50 to 75 low-barrier shelter beds — meaning people wouldn’t be turned away due to active alcohol or drug use — in concert with additions and changes to other social programs serving the homeless.
A fine-tuned recommendation, along with cost estimates, is due in December.
Meanwhile, tensions remain high between the homeless living on the streets and neighboring residents and business representatives.
Ron Packer, manager of Brad’s Specialized Service near the corner of Chambers and West Second, said he’s had to clean up urine and excrement due to homeless people using his property as a bathroom. He significantly pruned back a street tree to clean people from camping under it.
Packer said the same people move from place to place as they come to the Eugene Mission for meals and then leave. He pointed out to a reporter a homeless woman who he’s observed walking back and forth on West Second Avenue for weeks. Later sitting at the corner of Second and Polk Street, she declined comment.
“The bums have more rights than the business owners,” he said, voicing frustration that city leader are fostering a “no-responsibility community.”
Down the street at Burton Saw, Tompkins, the company’s president, said the outdoor camping in the area has worsened the last two months or so. He said there’s a growing belligerence among homeless people when they’re asked to disperse, and the camps have gotten larger.
“It’s not good for business to have people camping on your front lawn,” he said.
Tompkins said he’s called police twice in three days to remove homeless people from the property. A employee was pricked by a drug needle while cleaning up some debris on the property and had to be evaluated at a clinic, he said.
Safety concerns have prompted Tompkins to look into moving the business and its more than 50 employees to Springfield, he said.
Back downtown, Nate Bemiller, who resides at the downtown homeless camp, said the city’s approach to unsheltered people — ticketing, erecting fences and closing portable toilets — needs to change. He questioned how the city expects them to re-enter society when unpaid fines from citations go to collections and make it more difficult to build up credit.
He said residents needed to address the homelessness situation with more compassion and tolerance.
“People out here are some of the most giving, altruistic people,” he said. “If you give them a chance you might actually learn something. If you don’t, it’s kind of shortsighted, I guess.”
Nearby, Flint, who declined to give his last name, was setting up a makeshift shelter.
He said he left the protest camp due to a disagreement but came back after being rousted by Eugene police officers Friday morning while sleeping in Alton Baker Park.
He said there should be a secure place for homeless people to camp.
“It’d be nice to have the opportunity to stay somewhere,” he said.