13 May 2021
Homelessness top priority as Eugene considers community safety funding
Megan Banta Eugene Register-Guard USA TODAY NETWORK
Over the course of four months, more than 2,500 people gave feedback about how they think Eugene officials should prioritize spending funds from the community safety payroll tax.
City councilors received an update from city staff Monday night on the community input they solicited before they decide how to spend funds from the community safety payroll tax.
The presentation is part of the discussion as officials consider whether to change the way revenues from the payroll tax are spent. The tax, which was passed in 2019 and became effective Jan. 1, is intended to generate $23.6 million annually to provide long-term funding for community safety services such as crime prevention, police, fire and courts.
As originally proposed, more than half of those funds would go to the city’s police department while a combined 10% would go to crime prevention and services to address homelessness.
That distribution isn’t set in stone, though, city spokeswoman Laura Hammond told councilors. The funds must be used for certain services, she said, but city code doesn’t dictate the amounts spent on each of those services.
Following more than a month of protests in Eugene and outreach to city officials last summer after the death of George Floyd, city leaders initiated a round of small-group conversations and public input on where the funds should go.
According to the presentation from staff, the key takeaways from focus groups, online surveys and public forums were that:
h People support different strategies that would better meet the needs of underserved communities, such as alternative response options for non-criminal incidents and mental health crises, increased community capacity for mental health services and an alternative to calling 911 for non-emergency calls for service.
h Addressing the homeless crisis was the highest priority among people who took the survey. Supported methods include emergency shelter and services to help people move off the streets into more stable housing.
h There’s support for increasing police
capacity to answer more calls in less time.
h Respondents supported prevention programs for youth and programs to divert people away from the criminal system.
City councilors described the report as a “wealth of qualitative and quantitative information” and said they will take time to review the community’s feedback.
6 main themes from focus groups
Feedback on the Community Safety Initiative started with focus groups.
Thirty-five people participated in four two-hour sessions, Fabio Andrade said.
Andrade, the city’s human rights and equity analyst, said most of the
Eugene police stand by as campers pack their belongings after the city of Eugene served eviction notices to people who have been calling Washington Jefferson Park home during the COVID-19 pandemic. CHRIS PIETSCH/THE REGISTER-GUARD
participants are Black, Indigenous or from other communities of color; are part of the LGBTQ community; have disabilities; or are Jewish. Some of the participants do identify as white, he said.
The sessions weren’t recorded, he added; instead, staff took notes and looked for themes.
Six themes emerged, Andrade said: 1 Publicsafetyresponseshouldfocusoncultural respect and responsiveness and on building trust, and minorities should have more representation.
2 Cityofficialsshouldshiftstrategiesfromfocusing on responding and reacting to centering on prevention and services to the unhoused.
3 The strategies of the Community Safety Initiative are based on dominant culture perspectives and don’t consider the needs of underserved communities.
4 The initiative uses the wrong metrics.
5 There should be alternatives to law enforcement.
6 There aren’t enough mental health services available.
More than 2,500 took online surveys
City staff took those themes and strategies identified during the focus groups and put them to the community for feedback along with the original plans for the payroll tax revenues.
More than 2,500 people responded to two versions of an online survey, Hammond said 2,450 to an English version and 113 to a Spanish version.
As part of the 10-question survey, people ranked the original Community Safety Initiative strategies and the strategies identified in focus group both separately and together.
In the original strategies, the three highest-ranked strategies were: 1 Emergencyshelter 2 Youthprevention 3 Alternativecourtoptions From the focus group strategies, the three highestranked approaches were: 1 Alternativestopolicepresence 2 Mentalhealthandaddictionservices 3 Divertingpeopleawayfromcriminaljusticesystem When looking at all the suggested strategies, the top three were: 1 Emergencyshelterandservices 2 Alternative responses that don’t require police presence 3 Increased capacity to serve people with mental health and addiction services There also were a few opportunities for people to give an open-ended response identifying other priorities and strategies or commenting generally on the payroll tax.
The most common theme, according to the presentation, was homelessness.
Most people who made a comment regarding homelessness were in favor of more services, said Jason Dedrick, a policy analyst for the city. Some respondents, he added, said the city seems to favor the unhoused.
Another common theme was expressing support for police. Those who did so, Andrade said, also were likely to demand more enforcement for camping in parks and rights of way.
Around 150 people called for the city to give less funding to the police department, Dedrick said. Of those who did, many saw it as a trade-off for more funding for homeless services, he said, though some simply want to see the department defunded.
A similar number commented on safety, he said, with most saying they don’t feel safe in the community or feel less safe than they use to.
Listening sessions were ‘open mic’
The final piece of feedback came from two community listening sessions.
Those sessions, Dedrick said, were “essentially an open mic” in a virtual setting.
People had up 2 1/ 2 minutes to give feedback during the sessions. The first session drew 35 people, 11 of whom spoke, according to a report. The second drew 66 participants, and 30 of those people spoke.
A handful of themes emerged, Dedrick said, including comments around:
h Law enforcement in general
h Mental health services
h Support for the current proposal
h Community wellbeing and crime prevention
Council reviewing feedback
Councilors thanked staff for the robust report and presentation.
It’s fascinating, Councilor Matt Keating said, that similar themes emerged as in 2018 “even though the world was essentially turned upside down.”
Councilor Randy Groves found it encouraging that, based on his reading of the report, city officials are “closer than what I had originally thought going into this process” to meeting community expectations.
At least two councilors said they’d like to hear from department leaders — as they did before the City Council voted to approve the payroll tax — before making any decision.
Some councilors agreed with much of the feedback. For example, Councilor Greg Evans agreed the city isn’t doing enough to address mental health and social services and that dealing with those issues rarely requires a police officer.
Addressing the mental health crisis is also a top priority for Councilor Emily Semple.
Overall, councilors said it will take time to review the feedback and move forward.
“Shifting money is not a small thing,” said Councilor Jennifer Yeh, who serves as council president.
The task ahead is daunting, Semple said, but the council now knows how the community thinks officials could do better.
The council’s tentative working agenda doesn’t yet include a follow-up meeting on the Community Safety Initiative.
Councilors are set to discuss recommendations from a committee that examined police policy during a meeting Monday night.
Contact city government watchdog Megan Banta at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The city of Eugene cleared a camp displacing many homeless people, despite CDC guidelines, on Wednesday, Dec 2. Officers from the Eugene Police Department monitored as city staff cleared the area.
DANA SPARKS/THE REGISTER-GUARD