26 September 2021
Too little, too much
Community perceptions run the gamut
Megan Banta Eugene Register-Guard USA TODAY NETWORK
Claire Syrett has been hearing about people living in parks and rights of way since “pretty much as soon as I became a councilor.”
Syrett, who represents Ward 7 on the Eugene City Council, said she gets “a diverse swath of input.”
Residents in her ward, which includes the Whiteaker,Trainsong, River Road and Santa Clara neighborhoods,have a range of opinions on homelessness.
Some people think the city is too nice to unhoused people, she said, while others tend not to complain unless people setting up a camp nearby start being bad neighbors.
Those reflect a large part of the range of opinions city leaders said they hear while trying to balance providing people without shelter a space to sleep while preserving parks and public spaces.
That balancing act is a complicated one, Syrett said.
Businesses have been ‘fairly vocal’
Business owners around Washington Jefferson Park have been “very challenged” with some behaviors, Syrett said, including people stealing water and intimidating customers.
“Those folks have been fairly vocal,” Syrett said, in communicating they need some relief.
The business community has been trying to join the conversation around homelessness and help come up with meaningful solutions for a few years, said Brittany Quick-Warner, who heads the Eugene Area Chamber of Commerce.
“We kept trying to figure out how to plug into the conversation,” Quick-Warner said. “We were struggling to gain traction.”
Once the coronavirus pandemic started, the chamber started getting “more and more input from businesses” about the impacts of the unhoused, she said.
Businesses were constantly sending messages and photos of feces, vandalism, graffiti and drug paraphernalia, Quick-Warner said, and they came to the chamber with concerns about fires and vehicles thefts.
In west Eugene, a lot of people living in their cars continue blocking roadways, she said, which prevents delivery trucks from getting through and causes delays in shipping.
Multiple employees who work in that area have told stories of driving down the streets and having people throw things at their vehicles or try to hit their cars with baseball bats, Quick-Warner said, as well as people spitting at them and yelling profanities. One man had his truck shot at, she said, and there’s still a bullet in the frame.
The business owners and their employees are going through “a lot of mental and physical stress,” Quick-Warner said, between the pandemic and the impacts of homelessness.
Some feedback based in ideology
Syrett also regularly hears from constituents, such as residents on the north side of Washington Jefferson Park near Skinner Butte who were having issues before the city started providing a more organized option for people in the park.
Homeowners there were having things stolen off their porches and finding feces and trash in their yards, Syrett said.
A camp clean in the area brought some relief to those residents, Syrett said, though it did upset advocates.
Things have improved since then. “I’ve not received the same level of concern since we’ve had the more organized situation (of sanctioned camping in Washington Jefferson),” Syrett said.
Much of the negative feedback Syrett gets is based in ideology, she said.
“I get emails from people who are very upset about what they see there and blame us for the state of things and feel like we are being too nice to people who are being homeless,” Syrett said.
The money the city spends addressing homelessness is meant to help stabilize the unhoused, she said, but some people she hears from aren’t happy their tax dollars are being used that way.
Melinda Mulhorn lives in Ward 5, not Syrett’s ward, but she’s one of the people who thinks the city is often too nice.
Mulhorn, who walks through Alton Baker Park every day with her beagle JackJack Pono, said while the city has couched the camping in parks as being a part of the coronavirus pandemic, she’s been walking the trails for more than a decade, and people have “been doing this for years.”
During a walk in Alton Baker early one Friday morning, she points out to a Register-Guard reporter multiple places where she’s seen people camping over the years and garbage she says has been on the bank of the Willamette River for more than a week.
She walks JackJack down to the river a few times during their daily excursion to get water. That can pose a reason for caution, she said.
“If I try to walk down to the river on any of the foot trails, I don’t know who we’re going to run into,” Mulhorn said.
Stepping off the paved path or the Pre Trail in general can be a hazard, she said. One time, JackJack stepped off the Pre Trail and into human feces. Mulhorn only realized what it was after she had wiped it off his paws with her gloves.
The sites also cause harm to the environment, she said. Mulhorn wants to make sure the community protects drinking water, air quality and the wildlife she sees in Alton Baker. Even some things that deter campers can cause harm, she said, such as mowing of high grass in Alton Baker that displaced some camps but also destroyed fox dens.
Eugene is losing its 'livability'
She’s far from the only one complaining to city officials.
Between March 2020 and June 2021, the city received between 42 and 141 requests a month for service related to camping in the right of way and between 62 and 165 requests a month for service related to unhoused people seeking shelter in parks, according to staff presentations.
Overall, Mulhorn feels the impacts of homelessness and the way the city addresses the crisis has eroded one of the things that made her fall in love with the city decades ago — livability.
“We have a wonderful community here, and we are losing that community because of the influx of homeless people,” she said.
Where Syrett lives in the Whiteaker neighborhood, the residents take a different approach. In her experience, residents there tend not to complain unless the unhoused start to be bad neighbors.
“We are fine and they can stay, and we don’t call parking enforcement or the cops on them, and they can hang out for sometimes the whole summer or longer,” Syrett said.
There tends to be issues only when trash and personal items are blocking streets and sidewalks or when people are doing illegal drugs in the middle of the day, she said.
Syrett said people in the neighborhood do get frustrated by people seeming to view the sanctioned urban camping area as a space that will always serve that purpose.
Issue too big for one entity to resolve
Businesses and residents have been getting more involved in trying to figure out solutions.
At the start of the year, Quick-Warner said, the “sheer number reaching to say they needed help (with the impacts of illicit camping)” prompted the chamber’s board to figure out a way to get the business community more engaged.
“This is an issue that is too big for our local government,” she said, “It’s too big for our nonprofits.”
Instead, the issue needs to be addressed by the whole community.
Leaders knew they needed to learn more about the issue, Quick-Warner said, and she’s spent the past few months having more than 140 conversations about homelessness with all kinds of people to make sure the chamber doesn’t suggest solutions people already tried.
So far, that’s resulted in a report the chamber released Tuesday called the 'State of Homelessness.'
In the report, the chamber lays out data about the current crisis and sums up eight recommendations that 'aim to establish homelessness as rare, brief and non-recurring.'
The report is available ateugenechamber.com/state-of-homelessness. html Mulhorn also has tried to get involved, with less success.
She would like to see the city enforce its laws about littering and camping in parks, which she says currently have no teeth, and use community service as a penalty to promote accountability and deter negative behaviors.
She’d also like the city to create a park ranger position for Alton Baker Park and the Ruth Bascom trail system. The ranger should be armed, but not with a gun, she said.
Mulhorn has tried to set up appointments to share her ideas with various city offices. She said she’s left messages for city administration, her councilor in Ward 5 and the Parks and Open Space department.
“In most cases, it has been months since I left my messages and they are still not responded to,” she said. “The mayor was the only one that eventually give me an opportunity to talk with her but later did not acknowledge follow-up email.”
City officials have said it’s crucial to work with community partners to address homelessness and help get people out of a cycle of being unhoused.
The city is trying to deal with a very complex situation that people sometimes oversimplify, Syrett said.
Some people on various sides of the issue try to say it’s easy to deal with, she said, but “if it were that simple, we would have done it by now.”
Contact city government watchdog Megan Banta at email@example.com.
A no camping sign marks a trail in Alton Baker Park in Eugene. CHRIS PIETSCH/THE REGISTER-GUARD