More than a decade ago, the city of Eugene took a radical approach to common sense: faced with a homeless population it had neither the resources nor capacity to address, the city changed course and instituted a homeless camping program.
That was in 1998, and the program today has a backlog of people without homes that need a place to camp in safety and without penalty. The program is managed by St. Vincent DePaul, and the man at the helm of matching up campers with lots on public, private and faith-based properties is Keith Heath.
Currently there are 20 legal spaces managed by St. Vincent dePaul, including 10 on city property. The faith-based community offers some additional spaces for families, along with sites that are not managed by SVDP. Typically the spaces are for a 90-day period with the hope that the campers, age 18 or over, can use the time to transition to housing or another situation.
The program is at capacity. Heath says there is a waiting list of about 50 to 60 homeless people seeking a camping space. Campers must check in through the Eugene Service Station each week to remain on the list.
In Portland, advocates, attorneys and city officials have been hashing out possible changes to the city’s camping ordinance, and Eugene’s program for homeless campers is being looked at as a model for possible modifications.
Heath says the program has drawn considerable attention of late, as other cities consider new approaches to alleviate the growing crisis on their streets.
Joanne Zuhl: What’s the demand for this kind of program in Eugene and the surrounding area?
Keith Heath: According to the 2009 annual count of homeless people, homelessness has continually increased each year. The number of people who are chronically homeless has grown from 16 percent of the local homeless population four years ago, to over 50 percent today. Homeless residents of Eugene who camp in vehicles on the street are typically under-employed, unemployed, and in many cases, disabled. There are not enough subsidized housing, social-service and treatment programs available to meet the demand.
J.Z.: What was the city’s and the community’s attitude toward campers?
K.H.: While the City’s program is innovative and is generally considered successful, it is at best a response to a large problem and not a solution. Some in the community argue that the police should be more aggressive at enforcing the camping laws. This is an approach that has been tried and the result was increased police time spent on this issue (at the expense of other enforcement needs), greater anger and stress on the streets among homeless people and no greater success at reducing homelessness. Others in the community argue that Eugene criminalizes homelessness and people have no choice if they are to live. Homelessness is an uncomfortable community problem with no easy answers and many challenges.
J.Z.: Whenever these types of proposals get discussed, there are always concerns. How did you get the city, businesses and churches on board with this?
K.H.: There are “hot spots” in town where camping complaints are common. Neighbors often won’t object to an individual camper but when a larger camp begins to congregate there are usually problems. In some cases, erecting signs that prohibit parking during overnight hours has resolved problems at a specific location. However, as one location is resolved, campers move on to populate another area.
Police report that the program generally works smoothly and is an excellent example of a partnership with a non-profit organization that saves the city’s resources of time and money while providing a consistent service for homeless people. St. Vincent dePaul’s camping facilitator also works at the Eugene Service Station. Homeless adults frequent the Service Station and know him and trust him. In general, considering the size of the homelessness problem, the program keeps peace on the streets.
The program in its current form could be improved if more legal spaces were made available. These spaces serve as a pressure release and they build good will with the homeless community. One idea is to secure an intern to advocate for more spaces with businesses and organizations that own a building with appropriate parking spots.
J.Z.: What is the relationship between the campers and the folks who open their lots for camping? Is it more than just a place to sleep?
K.H.: The relationships between the camper and the business owners is great, The campers are grateful for the chance to have a safe place to park and will help out in any possible way to stay where they are. In some cases, it turns into paid work.
We have one lady here, her and her dad. Her dad has since passed away. They have a wrecking yard, and the vandals were going in, breaking the locks and stealing the radiators out of the old vintage cars they have out there. They contacted me, and I got two couples and a single person set up there and they’re watching the yard, and they’ve formed a pretty good relationship. They help each other out.
It breaks down stereotypes because most of what you hear about the homeless: alcoholism, drug addicts and so forth — it’s always something that’s not good. But there are people out there struggling to survive, living paycheck to paycheck and just trying to make it. If people can get past that and just open the door — 99 percent of the time it’s a positive outcome.
J.Z.: Is this happening in other communities that you know of?
K.H.: Actually, we are the model, and we’ve gotten many inquiries from Southern California. We had people come down here and ask us how we got the program started, what was the procedure with the city, and so forth.
We live in a community where everybody should be created equal and everybody should have the opportunity to live life to the fullest, and just because circumstances dealt you a bad hand, that shouldn’t determine what your social status is. If you can help each other, you help each other. We’re always reaching out to help other countries. We need to take care of home first.
The Eugene Homeless Camping program has three main elements:
1) An ordinance allows camping on public or private property if particular conditions are met. In non-residential properties there is a maximum of three campers per location. The city of Eugene provides a limited number of legal spaces on City property.
2) Police enforcement of on-street camping is typically responded to on a complaint basis.
3) The city contracts with St. Vincent dePaul (SVDP) to manage the city’s spaces, support other legal spaces, and to be the first responder to on-street camping complaints.