Eugene’s downtown dog ban: does it criminalize the homeless?
Robert Wilson, sitting at a park block corner on Saturday afternoon, gave off a sunny demeanor to passersby. Saturday Market goers were drawn to him by his chihuahua Chica, perched next to him in a cowboy costume.
Wilson had been homeless for 25 years, three in Eugene, before finding military veteran designated housing. Before he was safely housed, he was one of the many who frequented downtown, relying on the steady flow of people and sweet demeanor of his dog to earn enough money to eat. But this practice was put in jeopardy when the dog ban went into effect in April.
The ban, approved by the city council, exempts licensed dogs owned by people who live and work in the downtown area and dogs that are left in vehicles. It was originally one of four proposals suggested to increase safety in downtown Eugene, which were voted on in November 2016. The other proposals discussed included a ban on smoking, the installation of downtown security cameras and a temporary closure of the Park Block shelters. The proposal to install security cameras was rejected in November, but further discussion of the other three proposals passed. As of August, only the dog ban has been implemented.
Homeless individuals reside all over Eugene, some in temporary housing such as Community Supported Shelters and some out in the open. In downtown Eugene, the blocks around Kesey Square are frequently filled with homeless people. They sit on the sidewalks, busking for money, and are often accompanied by a dog. This has been the case for years, but the homeless population is growing, and they are finding fewer sympathetic places to go.
“There’s lots of gradations of homelessness, and what we see downtown… [Mayor] Kitty Piercy used the word ‘travelers,’ street kids,” said Eric de Buhr, executive director of the Community Supported Shelters.
Wilson concurs, saying that some of the downtown homeless are merely passing through and give Eugene’s homeless a bad reputation, getting drunk in public and leaving trash everywhere.
Former council member George Brown agrees that some of downtown’s homeless create a safety concern.
“There were problems with dogs who attacked and killed another dog,” Brown said. “Very rarely have dogs attacked a human, [but] that’s happened too.”
Since the ban has gone into effect, there have been mixed opinions on its success.
“Anecdotally, we’re hearing from both sectors,” Councilor Greg Evans said. “There are people who are saying that the dog ban has made a difference in downtown. There are other people who feel that it really hasn’t made a difference.”
“I think it’s stupid,” Councilor Betty Taylor said, arguing that many people have dogs as companions, and that shouldn’t bar them from going into certain parts of town.
“There’s so many different groups of people that come downtown,” he said. “People who work there, people who patronize the businesses there, coming down for the restaurants. Then there’s homeless people, and then there’s travelers, and they all have to use this space and not step on each others’ toes.”
“I felt that to deprive a homeless person of their dog — for a lot of these folks, that’s their only friend in the world. And dogs provide security… I thought there has to be a different way,” he added.
Beyond their opinions about the dog ban, both Brown and Taylor agree that the proposed safety plans criminalize the homeless.
“The whole purpose of it is to exclude those [homeless] people,” Taylor said, even though councilors who voted for the proposals denied that intent.
“We’ve had this discussion in council a couple of years ago… with the city attorney – ‘No, no! The city of Eugene doesn’t criminalize homelessness!’ But we do,” Brown said. “Do I think there’s a big campaign to criminalize homelessness? No, I don’t think that there is. I think that this was inadvertent and they just don’t see it.”
According to Brown, the homeless are cited, can’t pay the citations and can’t or won’t go to court. The city can either choose to go after them and jail them, using up taxpayer dollars, or leave them. Some homeless people owe hundreds of dollars in citations, Brown estimates.
Wilson has not been cited for having his chihuahua Chica with him while downtown but has been asked to vacate the area before.
“They came along with the dog ban and told me I was no longer welcome downtown,” Wilson said. “People are not allowed to discriminate against race and gender, but they sure can [against] homeless people.”
Although Wilson is no longer without housing, he still relies on busking at the Saturday Market and downtown to make a living. The dog ban makes this difficult for him.
“To me, it’s a civil rights issue and a disability issue,” Wilson said. “It really hurts to be discriminated against.”
Councilor Greg Evans disagrees that the dog ban affects Eugene’s homeless.
“We want to be very careful not to criminalize the situation of the homeless,” Evans said. He claimed that there is a difference between Eugene’s homeless and those who made inappropriate use of the downtown area.
According to both councilor Evans and Brown, increased police presence has been said to improve crime rates in downtown Eugene, but neither this nor the dog ban are permanent solutions. These actions may drive the homeless out of the downtown area temporarily, but they will still be without permanent shelter and in need of assistance.
Taylor said the answer is to provide housing downtown so that homeless who frequent that area have a place to go during the day and stay at night. A budget of $1 million has been approved and allocated for providing housing to those without a permanent residence, Taylor said, although she’s unsure when action will be taken and what’s to come of it.
According to Taylor, the Eugene City Council does not do much to support or assist the homeless population beyond the provision of land. Temporary housing such as the Community Supported Shelters are volunteer-based, and the homeless are otherwise left to their own devices.
In January 2017, Lane County Human Services conducted its annual Point-in-Time homeless count and found that there were 1,529 homeless people in Eugene alone. This survey did not include 741 people who were formerly homeless but now reside in permanent housing established specifically for the homeless community. Although this is only approximately 0.9 percent of Eugene’s 156,185 people, this proportion is higher than that of New York City, where only 0.7 percent of the city’s 8,175,133 individuals are homeless.
Eugene’s homeless are not going anywhere, with a 5 percent increase from the 2016 PIT count. Citing and jailing them for such things as sleeping on benches is not effective and a waste of taxpayer money, Brown said.
There doesn’t appear to be any easy solutions for the issues in downtown.
“I don’t think there is any one magic bullet,” Brown said.