EUGENE, Ore. -- A homeless protest camp in downtown Eugene is growing every day, and so is the community concern.
But who are these people?
We see them everywhere we look. Some call them bums, drunks and tweakers. Others welcome them into the community.
KEZI 9 News followed one man at the protest camp in downtown Eugene on 8th Avenue and Oak Street.
“They’re individuals that either fell through the cracks or just exploring, and I don’t find anything wrong with the travelers or the explorers. That’s how I got into being homeless," said Eric Jackson, who lives at the camp.
Eric Jackson is just another face in the crowd, another life in the shadows.
“The word homeless is not even close to true. Everyone is at home where they lay their head," Jackson said.
Every morning Jackson wakes up, finds a bathroom if he can and enjoys a hearty scoop of peanut butter.
His life didn't always look like this.
Before becoming homeless, Jackson said he thrived in an affluent area of New Jersey, where he said he owned and operated a pizza shop.
An arrest for illegally smoking marajuana in New Jersey led him to pack up and leave.
“I left going over the Ben Franklin bridge and kept on going straight and eventually ended up in Colorado," he said.
He never looked back.
Headed west, Jackson recalled the first time he ever camped outside in Denver.
“It was gorgeous. I thought I’d never be able to sleep with the trains, and I slept like a baby because around each other, we were comfortable," he said.
Jackson understands that not everyone in Eugene considers homeless camps in their community gorgeous.
With about 1,600 homeless people in Lane County, some people said increasing numbers means more crime, harassment and lower property values.
KEZI asked Jackson what he would say to viewers with these concerns.
“Give some love. Give some respect. Give some respect, and you’ll get so much respect back," he said.
Respect is an important word for Jackson, and he doesn't think of Eugene's latest "tent city" as a homeless camp.
He prefers "protest camp."
About two weeks ago, about 50 people were living on county-owned property near the Lane County Courthouse with no running water, no electricity and tarps for cover.
As of Tuesday, there are about 100 people in the camp. As of now, the county has no plans to move them.
Officials with the county said their hands are tied because of the recent 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that states you can't criminalize homelessness.
According to a recent study presented to county officials, 38 percent of unsheltered homeless people have a serious mental health illness, and 30 percent have a substance abuse problem.
Jackson admits that a lot of homeless people have addiction issues.
He's addicted too, he said, but not to what you may think.
“I don’t have other addictions except for court," he said. "I have a court addiction."
Jackson said he spent years informally studying the law, mostly because of former run-ins with the legal system.
He considers himself a sidwalk lawyer, of sorts, teaching others in the homeless community.
“I very much inform them of the law and try to get them to abide by and enforce what is lawful because I don’t want a disruptive society," he said.
Every morning, Jackson takes a walk to Theo's coffee to begin his work.
“It’s time to check the morning emails to see if I got any lawyer letters or new Human Rights Commission Eugene or the homeless poverty work group Eugene (emails), and unlike most out here, I actually have a laptop because I have to do advocacy work," he said.
Jackson still thinks like a business man, with grand plans to create a new life for the homeless.
“A homeless community run by us, for us, owned by us and operated by us," he said. "Showing that we can run restaurants, we can run retail businesses, we have artists that can fill gallery walls and we have sales people that can sell ice to eskimos. When they see that, they’re going to come from all over the world.”
Even though life can be rough on the streets, he and others would rather sleep outside than in the shelters -- including the one that city leaders plan to open just down the street.
As night falls on the camp, Jackson lays his head down on the cold, hard ground.
Homelessness is a problem that cannot be hidden, even though when our cameras showed up, many of the campers took off and hid.
“There’s no voice," he said. "You saw how fast it cleared out. They don’t want to be seen. They don’t want to be heard 'cause they’ll be picked on more. And I’m so out. I’m so out it just doesn’t matter 'cause I’m out there, and I’m in your face, and that’s not going to change.”
Eric Jackson is man on a mission. His high? Shining a light on others, and helping them out of the shadows.
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