Before Eric Jackson was homeless, he was a business owner operating a pizza shop in New Jersey. For 20 years, he managed a small crew, creating schedules, handling the finances, jumping in to spread dough and flip pizzas when it became busy.
At age 40, he moved to Colorado. It was here that he noticed that police officers treated the homeless different. Jackson claims they received tickets for existing in a public park, they were forcibly removed from city squares and if the homeless wanted to report a crime themselves, such as theft or assault, they wouldn’t be taken seriously.
“Prior to my experiences in Denver, I just wanted to be a stoner hanging out in Commons Park,” Jackson said. “But I’ve been a homeless advocate ever since.”
Jackson arrived in Lane County nine months ago. At first, he was merely passing through on the way to Portland to meet his son. When he got to Eugene, he noticed that the homeless community here was different than in Colorado or the other places he’d been.
“Other communities have homeless problems for different reasons — rampant drug abuse, rampant criminal activity,” Jackson said. “In Eugene, every single person I meet has unresolved trauma. Every single one.”
On Jan. 31, Lane County conducted the 2018 Point in Time Count, which consists of a three-part survey aimed to document the amount of both sheltered and unsheltered people experiencing homelessness on a single night in Lane County.
This year, there were a reported 1,135 men, women and children without shelter in the county. There hasn't been this many documented unhoused individuals since 2012, when there were 1,254.
Since coming to Eugene, Jackson has been instrumental in organizing protests aimed to increase the availability of resources, such as housing, to the homeless community.
He currently acts as the camp manager for the newly created Camp 99, a site to relocate the homeless that have been camping in the “butterfly” parking lot across the street from the Lane County Courthouse.
Camp 99 opened in October across from St. Vincent De Paul’s Lindholm Center on Highway 99. Many individuals who were protesting at the Butterfly Lot opted to move to Camp 99 and have access to safe sleeping spaces, restrooms and all of the services available at the Lindholm Center, which includes meals, showers, laundry and connections to social services.
Elena Domingo, a policy analyst for the Eugene city manager’s office, said that along with providing funding for Camp 99, they’re also working towards finding a location downtown for a day center that connects people experiencing homelessness with needed services.
“The city strives to address the need for both permanent solutions and more short-term emergency shelter strategies,” Domingo said.
Brenda Kosydar, who’s been a homeless case manager with the White Bird Clinic for over 10 years, cites the lack of affordable housing and the access to resources as main causes for the increase in homelessness.
“My department has seen a substantial increase in people moving into our state, looking for a better life,” Kosydar said. “We are also seeing an increase of local people losing their homes and turning to the streets.”
Although White Bird’s homeless department is able to offer general case management, which could include anything from assistance in obtaining proper state I.D. to providing new clothes, Kosydar said White Bird does not have any funding related to housing.
While it may be easier to find food and used clothes in Eugene, finding shelter in the winter is just not possible with the amount of unhoused individuals documented in the PIT count data. Emergency shelter is sometimes available, depending on the weather. This year, there are a total of seven Egan Warming Centers operating in Eugene and Springfield. Egan Warming Centers are located at churches and only open on nights with a recorded temperature below 32 degrees.
Shelley Corteville, executive director of the Egan Warming Center, says that they’re constantly filling to capacity. But no matter what, she never turns people away.
“It’s a terrible situation. And I know I’m going over capacity, but I will not turn people away to go and freeze. I just won’t do it,” Corteville said.
The Egan Warming Center has a contract with the county that allows them to operate every year from Nov. 15 to March 31. If freezing temperatures persist after March, there’s nothing they can do.
“One year it snowed on April 1. It was really distressing knowing that there was nothing I could do,” Corteville said. “It doesn’t just start getting cold on November 15 either. This is truly a temporary fix for a much more permanent problem.”
Devon Ashbridge, public information officer for Lane County, says that homelessness impacts everybody in our community, not just the unhoused. He says addressing homelessness is a high priority for Lane County and a key part of the County’s 2018-2021 plan.
“Collectively, the Lane County Poverty and Homelessness Board has set the goal to provide 600 additional units of affordable and supportive housing by 2021,” Ashbridge said.
One project Ashbridge mentioned was the construction of 50 units of permanent housing next to the Lane County Behavioral Health campus on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, across the street from Autzen.
While the city continues to find short-term space for the increased number of unhoused individuals, the county looks forward to providing a long-term solution to a growing problem.
“Meeting the needs of a wide variety of people, all of whom have a different situation and level of need, requires multiple efforts and solutions,” Ashbridge said. “There is no “silver bullet” to end homelessness.”