RANDY GROVES

Eugene City Councilor Ward 8

Register Guard - (Eugene's) Costly Cleanups

26 September 2021

 Randy Groves

A perspective from Councilor Groves: My concern with this article is that while it addresses the problems being experienced by both residents and the unhoused in our parks, neighborhoods, and riparian areas it does not speak to the problems being experienced in West Eugene with on street right-of-way camping that is adversely impacting our businesses and the jobs they produce for our community. The problem in West Eugene eclipses the problems experienced in our parks yet this article only addresses it in the most general sense as problems in our Right-of-Ways. While much work has been done to improve the situation over the past six months, it is barely noticeable as we try to catch-up to a problem that is years in the making. We have a big hole we are trying to dig ourselves out of and change cannot come fast enough!

COSTLY CLEANUPS

$3.5 million, 5,000 hours and 1 year later

Eugene’s ‘balancing act’ of providing sleeping space for people with nowhere to go while preserving public spaces is failing for everyone

Megan Banta and Tatiana Parafiniuk-Talesnick

Eugene Register-Guard | USA TODAY NETWORK

Whether you talk to city officials, service providers, businesses or residents about sweeps of camps in parks, public spaces and rights of way, there’s at least one common thread: The current strategy isn’t solving homelessness in Eugene. h Assistant City Manager Kristie Hammitt describes the job of giving people with nowhere to go a space to sleep while preserving parks and other public spaces for their intended use as “a balancing act.” h While the city has temporarily allowed camping in those public spaces, it remains illegal according to city code. People on all sides of the issue think the city isn’t striking the right balance.

A city of Eugene crew clears the remnants of a campsite under the Ferry Street viaduct near East Sixth Avenue in June. One way the city manages duties for Public Works, including cleanups like this, is through work orders.

CHRIS PIETSCH/THE REGISTER-GUARD

Some don’t think the city is doing enough to provide safe spaces for people who are sleeping in tents in parks and rights of way because they have nowhere else to go.

Others think the city is being too lenient and isn’t doing enough to keep parks and other public spaces usable for the rest of the community.

And public opinion runs the gamut of those perspectives.

The Register-Guard examined a year’s worth of city of Eugene work orders for inspections, notices and cleanups of camps in parks, public spaces and rights of way to see how often the city was removing people: That analysis found a significant expenditure of both time and public money:

h Time: Staff opened more than 2,800 work orders related to unhoused people camping in parks, public places and rights of way and logged at least 5,000 hours doing work to address those orders between March 2020 and March 2021. Staff did not log the amount of time worked in more than 1,200 work orders, meaning the total is likely at least hundreds of hours higher.

h Cost: The city spent $3.5 million on personnel, supplies, vehicle costs and hazardous waste cleanup between June 2020 and June 2021.

Looking for more effective ways to address homelessness, city leaders hope an initiative approved in April to create city-sanctioned “Safe Sleep” sites will help give people a place to sleep and cut down on the amount of people camping in parks.

The Safe Sleep project aims to add more than 500 spaces for those experiencing homelessness to legally stay overnight. The sites also will have amenities like trash service and bathrooms and access to services that can help people obtain an ID, learn job skills, receive mental health or substance use treatment or get other assistance to get back on their feet.

In August, an estimated 2,405 people experienced homelessness in Eugene but had zero access to lowbarrier shelters, meaning there’s almost nowhere to go for people with mental health and substance use issues.

In August, Lane County had 230 “other shelters,” which are made up mostly of pallet structures sprinkled around the area — 86.1% were used — and 209 spaces in “lower barrier” shelters — 59% were used. But with lower barrier shelters most of the beds were provided by the Eugene Mission, which requires residents to join their program and does not have the capacity to help people with substance abuse issues.

Hammit and Matt Rodrigues, Eugene’s public works director, are leading the Safe Sleep sites effort. Officials have approved space for 70 to 80 individuals at two sites so far — one on the west side of the city and another on the northeast side.

“Ideally, as we start opening up these sites, people have confidence that they will get the help that they need, and we’ll hopefully be able to help people move to … their next housing status,” Hammitt said.

Amid delays, the city hopes to have the sites — which originally were estimated to be ready for use by the end of August — ready by the end of September.

Neither site is open yet.

What work orders show

The Register-Guard set out to quantify how many times the city responded to complaints about unhoused people camping in parks and rights of way, and how much the city was spending to remove camps.

A monthslong analysis of work orders, one way the city manages duties for Public Works, obtained through public records requests found city employees completed work on 2,839 work orders related to people living in parks, public spaces and rights of way between March 2020 and March 2021. The work orders fell into four city classifications:

h 1,904 where staff found a camp in a park.

h 857 were an inspection, warning or removal of a camp or cleanup of debris in the right of way.

h 46 were an inspection, warning or removal of a camp or cleanup of debris in stormwater facilities or in medians.

h 32 where staff found a camp on Department of State Lands. Based onorders’ latitude and longitude markers, all these sites were on state-owned land along the Willamette River.

The work orders can be generated in various ways, including by public complaints made through calls and online, calls to the Communications Center and by staff going through their work duties.

More than two-thirds of the 2,839 work orders were related to campsites or evidence of camping in parks, and many of those work orders were along the Willamette River.

People weren’t necessarily removed from sites more than 2,800 times, city spokeswoman Laura Hammond said, because work orders “are created for many kinds of items.”

“They do not always correspond to a person at a campsite,” she said.

Even when the works orders did correspond to a person living in a park, public space or right of way, the order didn’t always result in the person moving, Hammond added.

People often receive multiple warnings, she said, and some have gotten up to 10 notices to clean up. Each of those notices corresponds with a work order. There were notes in some work orders that indicated staff had visited a site before, whether in a park or right of way.

Staff logged more than 5,057 hours working to post warnings, inspect sites, clean up debris and more, according to the analysis of work order data.

Close to 90%, or 4,421, of those hours were spent inspecting and cleaning areas where people had been living or left debris in the right of way.

In the case of 1,246 work orders, staff logged no hours, meaning the total is likely at least hundreds of hours longer. The field to log hours on the order is optional, Hammond said, with maintenance staff using it and parks staff often opting not to use it.

Based on available data, the biggest cleanup took 83 hours and 14 staff members working along the North Bank Path across the river from Skinner Butte Park in February. The work orders don’t indicate how many people were living at any encampment or where people go when they’re removed before a large cleanup.

How much has it cost?

The city has racked up costs through more than just employee hours while responding to complaints about camping and trying to reach out to people living in parks, public spaces and right of ways.

Eugene spent an estimated $3.5 million on homeless response in those areas between June 2020 and June 2021, according to an email from Hammond. That estimate includes the employee hours above as well as hours not logged on work orders and time worked by staff on other teams, supplies, vehicle costs and hazardous waste cleanup, she said.

A large encampment removal on Dec. 2 where around 100 people were living on land beside the Interstate 105 bridge on the border of the Whiteaker neighborhood cost $10,084, according to city figures provided through a public records request. Most of that was spent on labor.

When asked at the time where the removed people were expected to go when COVID-19 restrictions had whittled down the already scarce shelter beds, Kelly Shadwick, a spokesperson for Parks and Open Space, said, “We don’t know. It’s a really tough issue.”

The Dec. 2 camp clear cost provided by the city includes costs only from the Park and Open Space division of Public Works and “does not reflect costs by other departments,” according to the budget analyst who responded to the public records request. It does reflect hours from staff who “do not normally work Illicit Camp Cleanup as part of their normal duties.”

Based on notes listed on the work orders, staff collected 522 yards of trash between March 2020 and March 2021, though the total is likely higher because in some cases work orders noted that trash was taken to the landfill without listing how many yards of debris was picked up.

That “trash” could include tents, blankets and other items people left behind as well as actual trash people didn’t take with them when they left. Sometimes there were hazardous materials left behind.

Staff noted 76 times picking up needles or propane tanks or calling NW Hazmat to clean up needles, feces and other potentially hazardous materials.

Based on images of receipts included with work orders, the city spent at least $8,591 on landfill fees and work from NW Hazmat. In one case, the bill from NW Hazmat was about $6,500.

The process of removing a camp

It’s a cloudy, cool morning in July when park ambassadors Raymond Gulley and Lauren Nusser park a city-owned Toyota Prius on Arbor Drive.

They walk down the street toward the West Bank Path, explaining to a Register-Guard reporter that they’re about to post a cleanup notice, which will be linked to a work order, because someone is living in a tent on the Willamette River in a riparian zone and the person has been cutting down foliage and trees to secure their site.

People had been hesitant to swim in the river for a few days, citing the camp as a reason, Gulley said, even though temperatures at the time had been scorching.

Complaints like this from residents are called “requests for service” and are one way the city generates work orders. In some months, the city receives more than 200 requests for service related to camping in parks and rights of way.

Washington Jefferson Park is one of the public spaces the city of Eugene has allowed people to camp during the pandemic, as long as occupants follow certain rules. If the city thinks a person isn't following the criteria, it will give them a 72-hour notice to resolve the issues or be kicked out. CHRIS PIETSCH/THE REGISTER-GUARD

Gulley and Nusser are at the site to post a notice linked to a work order. Staff post different kinds of notices for areas where:

h Camping is temporarily allowed: Staff post a warning that indicates which stay-in-place criteria is not being met. No earlier than 7
2 hours after the posting, staff will check if the person made the required changes. If they did, staff don’t move them. If the site isn’t in compliance, staff will clean.

h Camping is not allowed: Staff post a warning that indicates where camping is not allowed in parks, such as near playgrounds or along waterways, and return no sooner than 72 hours after the posting to clean up.

h Temporary sites are sanctioned and run by the city:People must follow the city’s stay-in-place rules to use these areas.Staff post a warning that indicates which stay-in-place criteria is not being met. Staff leave the person in place if there is compliance or ask them to leave if there is not. Cleanup takes place between 10 and 19 days after initial posting.

Gulley and Nusser pause at the edge of the trail. Nusser uses a smartphone to mark the location and creates a work order that will be linked to the notice.

She gives the ID number to Gulley to write on a form that will tell the person they have 72 hours to leave the site. After that three-day mark, another team will come back to clean the site, remove the person if they’re still there and complete the work order.

Nusser takes a couple pictures as the two approach the site, which is nestled back in an arch of branches and blocked from view by a bright blue tarp. The pictures will be attached to the work order.

Gulley lays down the notice, then explains to the person there what it is and why they are receiving it.

He asks the person if they have any questions and doesn’t elaborate on the notice when they say they don’t. When people don’t want to talk, Gulley said, park ambassadors just leave the notice at the site.

Gulley also offers a garbage bag and information on social services.

The interaction is quick, and Gulley and Nusser walk away to finish other steps in the work order process.

They try to do as much away from the site as they can, Gulley said.

“For the time being, they consider it their home,” he said. “We want to move out of it and do other steps elsewhere, so they feel comfortable.”

At some point after the 72-hour mark, city staff will return to clean up the site and make the person move if they are still there.

Policies have shifted during pandemic

Even in similar sites, not everyone has received the same notice Gulley and Nusser gave the person camped just off the West Bank Path — the notices have changed throughout the pandemic.

Two service providers who founded organizations to help people experiencing homelessness access services expressed frustration with the frequent changes to policy.

Mackenzie Ní Flainn, founder of Black Thistle Street Aid, and Brittiny Raine, co-founder of CORE, can be found at Washington Jefferson Park every Wednesday distributing food, medical care and survival supplies.

While they walked with Register-Guard reporters through the park on a hot morning in July, they described constantly shifting policies that seem arbitrarily enforced.

Raine, whose organization supports homeless youth, said it’s frustrating that city staff “always seem to sweep when there’s a huge emergency,” such as wildfires or extreme weather, and that the rules change regularly.

“It makes it really difficult for service providers because we start working with somebody and we think that they’re going to be able to stay in place ... and then they’re just gone,” Raine said. “And we don’t know where they are.”

Chance McCartney is unhoused and lives in Eugene. She’ll soon be 40 years old, has chronic health issues and said she’s has been moved nine times by the city over the course of the pandemic.

Every time she’s forced to relocate, she loses possessions such as her art supplies, food and clothing.

“The thing is, every time that you’re made to move ... you lose all that stuff,” McCartney said. “You never get to really function, fully, day to day, doing what you do that makes you you, what makes you a person, or anywhere near ... self actualization.”

She currently is appealing being banned from all city parks and open spaces because her camp exceeded a 12by-12-foot size limit when she attached a shade structure to it. McCartney said she needed the shade structure to survive the summer’s record-breaking heatwaves.

“I get heatstroke very easily,” McCartney said. “And there was no more room (to camp) under the bridge.”

The appeal filed by her attorney argues that while the city established a 12by-12-foot limit, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance advices that unhoused people in encampments be given at least 12-by-12 feet of space.

City work orders increased in summer months

Rodrigues, the city Public Works director, said he recognizes the changing notices, as well as the different kinds of postings, could be confusing.

“I think there was a bit of confusion because we have different rules for right of ways versus parks,” he said.

The city has adjusted the notices associated with work orders “a number of times,” he added, each time trying to “make them as kind of simple and straightforward as they can be given that we’re working with some complex rules.”

The city of Eugene’s approach to pandemic camping has shifted over time.

In late March 2020, the city temporarily suspended enforcement of illegal camping per CDC guidelines as the coronavirus pandemic was worsening in Oregon.

On June 5, 2020, regular enforcement returned even though CDC’s pandemic guidance remained in place and government-run temporary emergency shelters were shut down.

Both service providers and city officials confirm there was a ramp-up in sweep efforts in late summer 2020. The Register-Guard’s analysis of work orders showed an increase in warnings, sweeps and cleanups last summer.

The work orders across all four categories analyzed by The Register-Guard started off somewhat slow then ramped up, with 139 in March 2020 then at least 250 a month between June 2020 and October 2020 after the city resumed regular enforcement of illegal camping rules.

There was a decrease after that, with 220 work orders in November, then fewer than 200 a month between December and March.

As the number of work orders decreased, the city’s policies continued shifting:

h Dec. 2: Eugene removed about 100 people living in tents on a strip of land beside the Interstate 105 bridge on the border of the Whiteaker neighborhood and discarded the belongings that remained.

h Dec. 14: Nine local organizations, including White Bird Clinic, penned an open letter asking the city to again follow CDC guidance.

h Late December: The city changed its policy to temporarily allow for urban camping and created a detailed list of criteria camps must follow to avoid eviction. A copy of a work order with these criteria has about a dozen check boxes.

h April 2: City posts signs in Washington Jefferson Park banning additional campers.

h April: Eugene starts using a new incident command structure to coordinate work addressing homelessness, specifically providing people alternatives to camping in areas where they’ll receive notices.

City finds new structure helped coordinate response

City leaders admit the response to illicit camping has been disjointed.

This April, Eugene started using an incident command structure, which is used by public agencies to manage emergencies through a centralized effort, to coordinate work. Rodrigues and Hammitt serve as co-incident commanders for the more unified effort, which for the moment is focused on creating the Safe Sleep sites.

The new structure has helped city staff work more effectively, Rodrigues said.

“There’s so many different workgroups across the city that have some role in the work that without having a structure like this, it was really hard to make sure that we were all on the same page and working in the same direction,” he said.

Now, the staff’s work is based on a set of operational priorities geared toward the larger goal of adding 310 Safe Sleep sites for camping and 200 sites where people can live in their vehicle.

There are secondary goals, too, Hammitt said, including returning park land to its intended use.

The city has set up sanctioned places where people can live in tents and vehicles, but camping in parks, rights of way and other publicly owned spaces still isn’t allowed by city code. People can camp or sleep overnight in certain situations if they have permission from the property owner.

The city can cite people for violating that portion of city code.

While the city has continued citing people for camping in parks, rights of way and other public spaces, they’ve focused on some areas more than others, Rodrigues said.

“The thing is, every time that you’re made to move ... you lose all that stuff. You never get to really function, fully, day to day, doing what you do that makes you you, what makes you a person, or anywhere near ... self actualization.”

Chance McCartney
 

“We have areas where we’re prioritizing enforcement, riparian areas, you know, places where it may be unsafe,” he said.

The city has been clear about where people can’t go, he said, referring to riparian areas, neighborhood parks and areas too close to private land, park amenities and bodies of water. But, besides the sanctioned urban camping sites, the city hasn’t said where they can go, either.

Some areas simply aren’t prioritized for enforcement, he said, meaning people could camp there and not necessarily get a notice unless someone complains.

‘There isn’t a systemic response that is helping this problem’

Those who have spent more than two years hosting vigils for people who’ve died while homeless and protesting sweeps think the policy of making someone move when there is nowhere to go is ineffective at best and cruel at worst.

“You don’t end homelessness by sweeping it around town,” Arwen Maas-DeSpain said.

Maas-DeSpain founded and serves as executive co-director of Carry it Forward, a nonprofit that supports unhoused people throughout the county through advocacy, outreach and shelter programs.

City officials try to help people stay in one place as long as they aren’t in a riparian zone or other area where camping isn’t temporarily allowed by posting warnings when people aren’t meeting criteria, Rodrigues said.

But workers don’t always have the expertise to do that if there’s “a mental health or addiction issue,” he said.

In 2019, the Lane County Point in Time Count of people experiencing homelessness found that a third of the county’s unhoused live with a mental illness and a quarter reported substance use.

Assistance from service providers who can help people who have a mental illness or substance use disorder is crucial in filling in where the city’s skill set ends, Rodrigues said.

Additionally, he said, city employees who serve as hosts for the city-run camps at Washington Jefferson Park and 13th Avenue and Chambers “really try to get to know folks and give them some assistance in trying to stay there” and mitigate issues.

But if people are threatening others, accumulate too much trash or commit a crime, he said, the city takes action.

“At some point, we have to say, ‘I’m sorry, but we need you to go from this site,’ ” Rodrigues said. “But we try to try to work with people as much as it’s practicable.”

Service providers say the city’s current process of removing camps not only doesn’t help people stay in place, but also is wasteful and harmful.

“The full scope of how much money the city of Eugene is spending on this (sweep efforts), the amount of waste that goes into doing this, is ridiculous,” Ní Flainn said.

As Safe Sleep sites remain unopened, Lane County had a total of 412 alternative shelter beds (101 of which were unoccupied), 209 “lower barrier” shelter beds (86 of which were unoccupied), 64 “transitional beds” (3 of which were unoccupied), 230 “other” shelter beds (this includes pallet shelters, 32 were unoccupied) and zero low-barrier shelters to provide for an estimated 3,155 people living in Lane County without homes in August.

“If you want to end homelessness, you have to first have places where people can be so that they can build a foundation,” Maas-DeSpain said.

People can’t get clean from drugs, work on their mental health, get their ID, birth certificate or anything else they need to get back on track without having a place to be, she said.

Maas-DeSpain added while sites might not look “sightly” to residents or officials, if the community provided trash services, port-a-potties and a safe place to be, people could manage better.

“But the way that there is disorganization in the government response, as well as disconnect between all of us who are actually providing the services, is just a mess,” she said. “It’s always a mess.“ People in various sectors are trying to do good stuff, she said, but they lack coordination and “there isn’t a systemic response that is helping this problem.” Service providers have tried to work with and provide feedback to the city but say the relationship is strained as they feel their advice is often ignored.

Maas-DeSpain added she doubts the “political will in Eugene is enough” to address the crisis in a meaningful way.

City trying to help people be ‘partners in their journey’

Campers, activist and neighbors are anxious to know whether the sweep process might change again.

For the moment, Hammitt said, the city is still following CDC guidance that calls for officials to allow people who are living unsheltered or in encampments to remain where they are if individual housing options are not available.

It isn’t clear when that guidance might change, she said.

“Right now, you know, we keep asking those questions of our public health partners at Lane County, and it’s kind of unknown at this point when those guidelines will continue to lift,” Hammitt said. “I think part of it is just, it might be getting through the fall a little bit with this delta variant and seeing how things go.”

While the community waits, the city is pushing forward to create its 500 Safe Sleep sites, although it would provide shelter for about a fifth of people experiencing homelessness in Eugene.

The city missed the first estimated opening date for the two approved sites, which was the end of August.

There are just days to go until the targeted opening date that was given to the City Council recently, but there are still ongoing delays for various reasons, Hammond said Tuesday.

City leaders hope the sites will give people somewhere to go to find stability, get services and escape the cycle of homelessness once they do open, Hammitt said.

“We’re just really hoping to help people as much as we can who are ready to receive the help, to be partners in their journey,” she said.

Meanwhile, the sweeps continue.

Contact city government watchdog Megan Banta at mbanta@registerguard.com. Contact reporter Tatiana Parafiniuk-Talesnick at Tatiana@registerguard.com or 541-521-7512.

Community service providers Brittiny Raine, left, and Mackenzie Ní Flainn walk through Washington Jefferson Park in July and explain the issues they have faced with the city while trying to provide aid to people who have nowhere to go. Raine is the co-founder of CORE (Community Outreach Through Radical Empowerment) and Ní Flainn is founder of Black Thistle Street Aid.

JEREMY WILLIAMS/THE REGISTER-GUARD

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Randy Groves