06 June 2022
Eugene 'bailing out Titanic with a teacup' helping people living in vehicles and addressing impacts
Eugene officials and staff say new parking rules are making a difference as the city seeks to help people experiencing homelessness find stability while also addressing the impacts of people living in vehicles on other residents and businesses.
But the city is still drowning in complaints as people living in vehicles park on neighborhood streets and near businesses, especially on the west side of the city.
In a given day, the city’s parking enforcement staff can clear less than 1% of open parking complaints that generally are about people living in vehicles, said Jeff Petry, who heads parking services and other efforts in the city’s public works department.
Eugene City Councilor Randy Groves, who represents the city's west side, said the ever-growing homelessness crisis is outpacing the available resources.
“It sometimes feels like we’re bailing out the Titanic with a teacup," Groves said. "We need bigger, bolder solutions."
Code changes that limited where people can park recreational vehicles overnight and require people to move at least two blocks every three days have helped mitigate some of the issues, he said, but they’re just one tool.
Homeless advocates say it doesn't really solve the issues. It just means there are less people living in vehicles on streets where the city has "been more persistent in holding the line," Gabe Piechowicz said.
"Clearly, the shift is now to put homeless people out of sight," said Wayne Martin, a retired pastor who's been advocating for the unhoused in Eugene for around a decade.
New policies also haven't stopped complaints from businesses or other residents.
While it’s “absolutely legal to park on the street for 72 hours” under the new rules, the city knows it can create tension between the businesses and residents and the people living in their vehicles, Petry said.
Business owners grow frustrated as they lose customers and see trash accumulate. Residents don’t feel safe walking on streets around their homes. And people living in their vehicles must navigate the rules despite mental trauma and often face unsanitary conditions.
"It sometimes feels like we’re bailing out the Titanic with a teacup, and we need bigger, bolder solutions."
Eugene City Councilor Randy Groves
As emotions run high, the city is performing a balancing act, Petry said. The city is focusing on trying to gain compliance with conversations and warnings before fining people while still addressing concerns, he said.
As some are concerned Eugene may be in for another "summer of hell," city staff, officials and advocates for the unhoused alike urged people to have compassion and understand that everyone has their own story and people are faced with different kinds of impossible situations.
Problem got 'bigger and more volatile' in 2021
The city’s homelessness crisis is far from new.
Groves was a firefighter for decades, retiring as chief in 2016 after a more than 30-year career. Some of the earliest calls he can remember related to the unhoused.
But as the pandemic exacerbated many problems, it also heightened tension between people living in their vehicles and businesses and residents.
Groves has had his “hands back in it” since January 2021, when he took office as councilor for Ward 8.
“It’s a lot of similarities from the past except bigger and more volatile,” Groves said.
And things came to a head over the summer, when complaints and requests for service hit a peak in June 2021.
From March 2020 to June 2020, there were less than 400 requests for service a month related to people living in their cars, according to data included in staff presentations.
Complaints averaged 513 a month from July to September 2020, according to data provided through a Register-Guard records request, then increased to be more than 700 every month after that and hit 1,283 in June 2021.
Sympathetic until people 'weren't good neighbors'
As the number of complaints rose, residents, businesses and more looked to the city for solutions.
Among the people asking the city for help was John Nanci, who has lived on Stewart Road in west Eugene for about a decade.
He was mostly OK with people living in their vehicles on the street through most of 2020 and is sympathetic to the problems those people face but said after a certain point, they weren’t good neighbors.
At one point, Nanci had mail stolen out of his mailbox, and people stole half of his external propane tanks.
People who were living on the street were harassing employees at the businesses on Stewart Road, he said, and employees were picking up fecal matter and needles even as they were losing customers because people didn’t want to drive down the road.
Nanci hit his breaking point on a daily walk with his daughter, who has anxiety issues. There were vehicles parked on both sides of the street as they walked not far from their house, he said, and she froze as two dogs ran up to her.
There had been other altercations and incidents, he said, and him and others had hit their wit’s end trying to get the city to intervene. Nanci said that didn't happen until the neighbors and business owners reached a real person.
The problem put lots of people in a tough spot, including Piechowicz, the pastor at Everyone Church, who “kind of got caught in the middle” of things trying to work with businesses and residents, the city and people living in their vehicles.
Piechowicz would “never in a million years want to have the responsibility of leading the free world” but said trying to help manage the crisis last summer felt a little bit like doing just that.
And there was no one person or group of people making things as complicated as they were, he said.
“I don’t observe there to have been an outright villain in the story,” Piechowicz said.
Instead, he said, people made mistakes and did good on all sides, but the sheer reality was that there was so much happening it was “outpacing anything we could do.”
With new rules, city focusing on compliance
Groves said there’s one tool that has helped the situation as part of the city’s larger efforts.
Over the summer, the City Council passed new parking regulations that, among other things, banned recreational vehicles from parking on the street in residential areas and said people parking on the street needed to move their vehicle two blocks away every 72 hours. Those went into effect July 24.
Parking enforcement wrote more than 1,800 citations based on those code changes between new rules going into effect and the city's response to a public records request in January.
Around 90% of those were probably for areas outside the downtown and campus area, Petry said. In those two zones and other areas regulated with signage, he said, the city generally just writes tickets.
Where there aren’t signs, though, the city relies on complaints, Petry said, and starts with a warning.
Of the 1,814 citations written for violations of “storage on the street,” which includes the 72-hour rule, most were warnings. Just 315 resulted in a $25 fine. That’s less than 20%.
Parking enforcement employees don’t have quotas for tickets, Petry said. Rather, they are focused on gaining compliance first instead of immediately writing a ticket.
A new position of neighborhood services officer, essentially a "parking officer plus" is doubly focused on that, he said, with the job of engaging the public and showing mutual respect while trying for compliance.
The neighborhood services officers know people, Petry said, and they’re easy to spot in bright green Chevrolet Volts. That program has seen success, he said, as parking enforcement employees have interacted with people living in their vehicles in a different way than the city used to.
That doesn’t mean there isn’t still tension.
“Are people unhappy that they have to move? I’d have to say yes,” Petry said. “I wouldn’t want to have to pack up all my stuff.”
But people do generally understand, he said, and move to comply with the 72-hour rule.
Eugene also is enforcing the code evenly, Petry said. If an employee responds to a complaint about parking, he said, they enforce the entire block.
“We’re not going to pick and choose,” he said.
Piechowicz said that consistency is key and that a lack of equitable enforcement of the rules created distrust between the city and people living in vehicles and service providers who were trying to help.
Sometimes people would get a sticker or a warning and then nothing would happen, he said, but other times they’d get a warning and the next day the city was there with cops and parking enforcement.
That made a complicated situation worse, he said, even for people who weren’t dealing with mental trauma.
Groves agreed it was important to write the new rules objectively rather than in a way that would target any individual or group.
And while Groves says the rules have led to improvements, the city is still consistently getting complaints.
'Not the neighbors we want'
Complaints and requests for service decreased leading into August 2021 but started ramping up again, hitting 1,022 in January 2022.
In February, Morgan Griffin hit his own breaking point when there were five RVs on Obie Street outside his small business.
There was garbage spilling out on the street, Griffin said, and he stopped someone from backing up to defecate in the bushes off the edge of the parking lot. Trucks couldn’t back up into the parking lot to make deliveries, he said.
Around 6 p.m. one night, someone came up to the window of his business to ask for money and got combative when Griffin asked them to leave, he said.
Griffin said he respects that people living on the streets have rights and aren’t all criminals. But “unfortunately, a lot of the behavior is criminal,” he said. The compassion he and others have for those in need “outpaces itself at a certain point.”
“These are not the neighbors we want,” he said, comparing it to calling the city about a neighbor with a junky, broken-down car parked in the driveway.
Griffin feels like he was patient but said the issue rose to the point where he couldn’t just leave it be. He didn’t want to be intimidated to the point of leaving, he said, but he also didn’t want to deal with it himself.
He emailed the mayor and City Council, got a response from Groves within hours, and the city posted "no parking" signs on Obie Street a short time later.
Griffin was pleased by the response but thinks the overall situation in west Eugene has “gotten out of control” and said it’s “disappointing that (the city has) let it get so bad.”
Response from city could take days, or months
The city is trying to address issues, Petry said, but there are lots of capacity issues.
In the beginning of March, the city had more than 2,000 active complaints open related to people living in vehicles, he said.
Parking enforcement, including the neighborhood service officers, can clear maybe a dozen complaints a day, he said.
Neighborhood service officers prioritize west Eugene, streets near the Safe Sleep sites and schools, and the area around the Whiteaker neighborhood for enforcement, Petry said, then will go out to other areas.
The city does track complaints to see if there are flare ups that need to be addressed, he added, but responding to a complaint could take days or it could take months.
The homelessness crisis has “basically overwhelmed the city’s resources,” Groves said, along with county and state resources.
In the coming budget, he plans to ask for more resources for parking enforcement to get staffing to adequate levels and increase the days of the week and hours of the day the city can respond to complaints.
Eugene is working to hire more people in parking enforcement, Petry said, but is facing a tight labor market. The job also is tough to hire for, he said, since the ideal candidate has customer service experience, is trauma informed and has a tough spine.
Even as the city prioritizes some areas, new areas cause concerns all the time, Groves said. He pointed to Owen Loop North, a spur street off Ed Cone Boulevard that he says wasn’t a problem initially. Recently, though, the “population has changed dramatically" there, he said.
On Sunday, the city towed vehicles and cleared more than 100 people from that encampment, with signs giving notice of a cleanup and 90-day closure.
A Eugene Police Department lieutenant told The Register-Guard the city cleared the street because of unsanitary conditions, criminal behavior by residents, damage to public property and illegal parking.
Many of the RVs were dilapidated, with shopping carts scattered around them and piles of broken-down bicycles and propane tanks.
People who had been living there, some for as long as two years or more, said they didn't know where they would move.
'A lot of us have been seeking alternative options'
Steven Ehreth, a two-year resident of the camp, expressed frustration that the city couldn't offer him and others who called Owen Loop home an alternative option.
Though there are Safe Sleep sites — city-run places where people can legally sleep in vehicles or structures — open, the two with vehicle options are full with waiting lists.
"It seems like with nowhere else to go, this is their time to strike and tell us to get going, and put the pressure on us," Ehreth said. "If we had an alternative option, would we be here in the first place? We’ve been here for two years, and a lot of us have been seeking alternative options for where to go."
Martin, the retired pastor, had been making frequent visits to the people living on Owen Loop for around a month and said the city didn't give people enough notice.
He added while the city has been short on resources, it spent a lot of money clearing people out of the encampment, from hazmat work to "innumerable" police actions and overtime for officers and other staff to work on Sunday.
"They've been living there a lot time. Two more days might not have hurt," Martin said. "The expense was reckless."
Advocates have said constantly having to move can cause trauma for people like Elizabeth Dunn, who was living in the encampment on Owen Loop. She said she's probably moved more than 50 times in the last three years while living on the street.
Recent changes in city policy, which Martin pointed out have come as the city prepares to host the World Athletics Championships, have made Eugene “an extremely scary place for people who are unhoused.”
Groves acknowledged making people move to clean up an area also doesn't solve the issue. When the city cleans up one area, he said, the people who are living in their vehicles just have to go somewhere else.
'It's an imperfect system'
Despite the knowledge people will just shift to another place, it’s important to address potential health concerns early, Groves said. He’s noticed that if people are in a spot for too long, the level of garbage, debris and waste can reach a dangerous level, and it’s much more difficult to clean.
But it's hard for staff to keep up with concerns, he said.
Piechowicz agreed the city’s staffing shortage is an issue, saying solutions like the parking regulations would work “if we had the sheer human power” and if there were “enough officers to work through the backlog.”
“By the time you see there are problems, you are so behind the eight ball it’s hopeless at that point,” he said.
Groves still encouraged people to report issues on the city’s website, saying if nothing else, it helps the city compile stats and find hot spots.
“Don’t think you’ll hear from someone that day or even the next day,” he said. “It’s an imperfect system. I do know that staff is working hard on this.”
No 'how-to manual' or 'silver bullet'
Meanwhile, Groves said, the city is still working on solutions.
Officials have been learning as they go, he said, and there’s not a how-to manual or a silver bullet.
Martin said historically, the city hasn't had a lot of success solving social problems. He's pushed for a while for the city to create a department and commission focused on homelessness services.
Without a dedicated department, he said, work to address homelessness is "essentially collateral duties" that people from various departments take on.
Though it hasn't created a department of homelessness services, the city did implement a unified command center to centralize efforts last year.
Piechowicz said that's "bearing good fruit."
A lot of the big issues the community is working on are tied together, Groves said, from the lack of mental health and substance use treatment options to the dearth of affordable housing to the low vacancy rate.
The city needs to stop “just swatting at the symptoms,” he said, and address problems earlier in the pipeline to homelessness with prevention efforts like those 15th Night undertakes.
Solutions will take time, though, and Piechowicz and others are trying to sound the alarm before another "summer of hell" erupts.
While there are fewer people sleeping on the streets in west Eugene, he said, the health issues haven’t improved, and the community needs to prepare now for what Piechowicz thinks will be another spring and summer influx of people living in vehicles.
If the community doesn’t get in front of the seasonal curb as five “ginormous” track events put strain on the city’s resources, Piechowicz said, it’s “going to be a bad situation.”
Piechowicz encourages those engaged in efforts to address the crisis to take a community approach. That strategy helped shift the mindset last summer, he said, from one where he “would go home and cry for 20 minutes because I couldn’t hold all that pain and suffering” to one where he started finding hope.
“Finding hope in a place where it does not belong is a super valuable resource,” Piechowicz said. “Some level of the bad will return, but we need to remember that some of these people actually represent stories that can change the whole narrative.”
Register-Guard reporter Louis Krauss contributed to this story.