EUGENE, Ore. -- It seems Eugene’s homeless are everywhere you look, and many are wondering -- does Eugene have a solution?
“It’s not overnight … not overnight,” Mayor Lucy Vinis said.
There have been endless complaints about the homeless blocking sidewalks and intimidating customers downtown. Police tell them to move along, only making them someone else’s concern and leading to complaints about what they leave behind.
The damage and cleanup of hazardous materials, waste and drugs is costing taxpayers millions of dollars.
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KEZI 9 News anchor Matt Templeman talked to Vinis, who said the problem didn’t develop overnight either.
The homeless problem was nearly as bad as it is now ten years ago, but few noticed, Vinis said.
“Now it is very visible, and now because it is so visible, people say we need solutions,” she said, solutions that won’t push it to the next neighborhood or another town.
Seattle, Portland, Salem and other cities along I-5 and beyond are fighting homeless issues. Vinis said it was topic number one during last summer’s U.S. Conference of Mayors in Boston.
“At least half of the sessions of the U.S. Conference of Mayors had to do with housing and homelessness,” Vinis said. “Everybody is struggling with it.”
Here’s what Vinis believes is to blame: During the 2009 recession, the Obama administration invested stimulus funds and dedicated money for homelessness prevention and sheltering people, but those funds went away and investments that made a difference dried up.
Vinis said a booming economy and low unemployment by itself won’t fix the problem – investing more will.
“It’s not just jobs. It is several decades of really investing less and less in urban development, so less money going to affordable housing options, decades of less investment in mental health and addiction treatment,” Vinis said.
Two years ago, Eugene’s city council dedicated a million dollars to fund the creation of a publicly-owned homeless shelter and commit to partnering with the county to assess all services dedicated to homelessness.
A report by the Technical Assistance Collaborative (TAC) out of Boston provided information about system-wide gaps and needs, as well as actions and investments to help fill the gaps and make the overall system more effective.
“I think the challenge is how quickly can we roll out some of these enhancement to the program that are recommended through the TAC report.”
It’ll require inspecting opportunity village, the rest stops, the Egan Warming Centers and car camping programs. Some of which are stop gap measures.
“So how do we make all of those sort of stop gap measures integrate more sensibly into an overall service delivery that really gets people off the streets? That’s where we’re going,” the mayor said.
Also helping is a one-time approval of $8.6 million in community safety funds. The money added officers and 911 services, continuation of community court, a day center for the homeless, youth services and more.
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In May, city councilors will discuss ways to establish sustainable funding for the community safety system. Vinis said combined with more efficient homeless services, that will begin to pay dividends.
“After 18 months of the community safety network, and 18 months of movement on TAC, it will look and feel different in this town and it will be better!” Vinis said.
The alternative scares her.
She said walking around Eugene, not many people know who she is.
“So I’m not targeted, but I will say … but when I am in any setting or situation where people do know who I am, this is the first thing people talk about. It is on everybody’s minds,” she said.
And while Vinis said she’s not tired of talking about homelessness, she is tired of not having an answer.
“I mean, I worry about this. I worry about this a lot,” Vinis said. “I worry both about the people who are unsheltered when we had the deluge of rain … out there in the wet and cold, I worry about them … I worry about the business owners who feel they can’t stay in business or business is jeopardized because of the foot traffic or the campers … I worry about that.”
Vinis wants answers for the public and the police, so they can approach illegal campers or a person discouraging campers downtown and be able to say, “You can’t be here. You need to be there.”
“We have to create there!” Vinis said. “We have to create that spot.”
A place where the homeless can go, allowing others to explore what the city has to offer and feel safe while doing it.
“You know one of the tragedies right now is we invest all this money in our public parks and bike paths, and there are neighborhoods who feel they can’t use the park or get on the bike path because they don’t know if they’re going to be surprised by someone threatening them or feeling threatening, so that’s what we want to fix.”