Eugene Register Guard
The fact that a group like Wake Up Eugene exists demonstrates that people’s patience with the homelessness crisis and the city’s response are at a breaking point. This is a compassionate city, but compassion without accountability fails.
Wake Up Eugene emerged from a meeting of five dozen local businesses. It’s a nonpartisan group that wants to work with the city on solutions to the challenges of homelessness. What makes it different is that it doesn’t shy away from the obvious fact that the challenges of homelessness affect more than just the people living on the streets.
In a city that prides itself on empathy, helping Eugene’s homeless residents is a top priority, as it should be. They lack shelter, which is a basic human need, and typically face economic or health problems. Sometimes the worst among them prey on their fellows with violence and theft. Alcohol and drugs are a constant specter and temptation.
That people live in those circumstances is unacceptable in 21st century Eugene or anywhere else. It is human nature to want to provide aid.
Compassion should not blind residents to everything else, though. Advocates for the homeless are single-minded and vocal in pressing public leaders to build housing and shelters. Theirs is a Pollyannaish view that people with substance use disorders and mental health problems are only a service provider away from stability. Anyone who suggests otherwise wants to criminalize homelessness.
Some of the city’s homeless residents are disruptive and resistant to services. Yes, there are families and people who have had some bad breaks and want nothing more than to get back on their feet. But there are also troublemakers who willfully remove themselves from society and its strictures. They commit crimes that harm the rest of the community.
Even when there aren’t crimes, human camping in public places almost always winds up with trash, needles and human waste accumulating nearby. Having compassion does not require tolerating or enabling destructive behavior.
Committing to change
Eugene must get homeless residents into stabilized, service-rich housing. That won’t be cheap, and it won’t happen quickly. The city and Lane County have committed millions. They have a 75-bed, low-barrier public homeless shelter in the works. The county also will build a 51-unit housing project with supportive service.
Those efforts deserve applause, but they are barely a start when the most-recent count found more than 2,100 homeless residents in the county. Given that the point-in-time count is notoriously unreliable, the number of homeless is almost certainly much higher during peak times.
Even if there were plans for 2,100 beds, building takes time. While everyone waits, the immediate deleterious effects that homelessness has on the community persist.
The city might look to Las Vegas of all places. There the city council recently passed an ordinance that makes it a crime to camp or sleep on a city sidewalk as long as there is space at a city-sponsored homeless resource center or in other shelters. If Eugene could create a similar resource center, it could empower law enforcement to direct all homeless residents to it and other shelter spaces. That will require additional investment, identification of a suitably large site for beds and camping, but it’s possible and could be implemented relatively quickly. The city needs only the will to help and to say that enough is enough to people who don’t want help but want to prey on the community.
Homelessness is more than a local problem, too. Oregon must step up with support and funding for the most-impacted communities, including Eugene. It must also continue to pressure pharmaceutical companies to address the opioid epidemic.
The payroll tax approved by the city council for public safety will help chip away at some of the biggest problems, especially with relation to drug enforcement, but it’s not enough. Eugene must invest more in short-, middle- and long-term fixes to address the homelessness crisis. And it must focus not just on the homeless but also on the character of the city that is fraying.
City leaders should be clear that sleeping on the street is not acceptable. Nor are theft, violence and trashing public spaces. Make it increasingly uncomfortable for the homeless to disrupt public spaces so that they have greater motivation to seek out the services that provide housing, food, job training, health care and treatment of addiction. The services are out there, and more will continue to come online.