Thursday found Occupy Eugene offshoot protest group 'SLEEPS' occupying the steps of the old federal building.They’ve done so for well over a month as a homeless and un-housed viable facilitation solutions debate rages in Eugene.
Sept 17 marked the two year anniversary of Occupy New York. Yet, the national news was largely void of its mention. Although a bit understated, the Occupy movement continues in Eugene to the benefit of area homeless and transient populations. Estimated at 1,700, the group has expanded with the prolonged recovery of what many economists now refer to as the second great depression. While Eugene's unemployment has decreased with the economic recovery of the state and local economy, many of these folks haven’t clocked into a job in years.
Pushed by local law enforcement to ' move along,' the homeless and the intentionally un-housed, continuously search for a safe, if not quite encampment or place to sleep.
While the “Occupy” bank and government protest of 2011 is all but a memory, the un-housed freedom and rights protest isn’t. The homeless remain under fire in a city that is often overwhelmed by an expanding homeless population. Public safety and health departments colliding with mostly well intentioned protestors and A.C.L.U. attorneys, fuel the fire of discontent smoldering within an often downtrodden street society that very often simply wishes to be left alone.
To date, the city council, organized homeless advocates and protest groups have not reached an accord as to a viable homeless solution. It’s a big problem that many citizens believe not to be that of city government. Nor, do they wish to pay for it with tax dollars. Fueling the homeless debate is one of unlawful camping within the city limits. Well, that’s part of the issue! As mandated by city ordinance, local law enforcement sites and evicts non-permitted campers at will. No over-night, long term camping is allowed within the city limits.
On a national level, Eugene is known by the homeless as a mostly kind, giving community. It is in-fact a West Coast stopping point for many young transients looking for a hand up. The influx of young homeless is most noticeable in the spring and summer months.
Downtown you’ll find SLEEPS, a rag-tag, yet seemingly well-organized assembly of ‘un-housed’ protestors and veteran street inhabitants with a message. “It’s everyone’s right as a human being to sleep.” And, SLEEPS believes that the un-housed should be allowed to do so safely within the city limits of Eugene; without harassment from the citizens or law enforcement and without the daily breaking and moving of camp.
As stated by SLEEPS organizer Joe Nauseous, the mostly vacant federal building falls under the watchful eye of Homeland Security. And, that other than a random tent search from time to time, the Fed is O.K. with the tented protest. “They’re mostly concerned with things that could be made into weapons and such,” says Joe. So they don’t harass us!
Sign boards surrounding the encampment warn participants that they inhabit a federal zone. That the camp is” not Eugene!” Medical Marijuana permits will not be honored here, and that the camp is under constant 24 hr. audio and visual surveillance. The sign warns all that enter to “watch what they say and do.” Thoughts… O.K.!
With that said, it becomes apparent that the strategic positioning of the camp is one of high traffic visibility, as many drivers passing the encampment honk and wave in approval of the protest.
Homeless or ‘un-housed’ camps can be seen throughout Eugene.
On Monday night following the city council meeting, one took form across from the new Federal Court on the Ferry Street Bridge green way. Across town on 13th Ave, bordering the Lane County Fairgrounds, a third camp has taken form. While the message is the same, the movement remains splintered. According to Joe, the SLEEP group has split from others, due to differences of opinion. The other homeless camps in the Downtown area, known a “Whovilles” are growing. Waiting for their next eviction, these folks claim that for every camp evicted by the city, two more will spring up in its place. According to protestors,” the protest is not for us, but for future generations.” It’s a rights thing!
“Got a dollar, I’m hungry!” Talking to the un-housed and proud of it!
In speaking with local street icon James “the Profit,” he shared with me his sentiment.” There’s a certain freedom on the street, and me and others living here aren’t going to give up that freedom.” Many street people like James, shun the advances of mandated bible study “warm houses,” and tough it out in makeshift shanty tent cities or under a bush or steam heated building entry. They consider themselves to be citizens of Eugene, regardless of lack of physical mailing address.
Last August a ' homeless' camp was shut down by county and state authorities. Located in a West Eugene wet lands nature reserve, the camp reportedly housed over 150 and had been in place for a year or more. This eviction pushed more homeless onto the streets where the crisis continues to escalate. A few days later a fire burned an adjoining 40 acres; assumed to be set by a vacated homeless man in retribution for the eviction.
With an estimated 2000 or so seasonal homeless in Eugene, quick fix programs such as City Councilman Allen Zelenka’s proposal to provide safe overnight camping for up to 15 campers at area “rest stops” while a step in the right direction is failing to gain community support. According to Occupy Medical and other area advocacy groups, the city’s 24 hr. break camp and vacate ordinance is not practical.
As neighborhood watch captains scream “not in my neighborhood,” the homeless stand up at city council meetings and dispute the validity of proposals that pale in comparison to the seemingly overwhelming burgeoning homeless population. It’s estimated by the Federal government that on any given hour in America, 600,000 people live on the streets of America. Most believe the number to be much higher.
As to the cities approved proposal for an “opportunity village,” two years after Occupy Eugene focused the community on the growing issue, the people of Eugene are still waiting!