Before opening Elk Horn Brewery — a Southern-inspired gastropub near the University of Oregon campus — owner Stephen Sheehan said he was a fugitive; he made his way to Eugene under an assumed name while running from authorities.
Sheehan had served time at the Mississippi State Penitentiary for forgery and embezzlement in 2005, related to crimes he committed while working at J.P. Morgan. Once released, Sheehan said he went on a crack bender and nearly returned to prison after a run-in with Mississippi state police. He changed his name and fled the state, eventually meeting his wife, and now co-owner of Elk Horn, Colleen Sheehan, and finally landed in Eugene.
In 2014, the Sheehans opened Elk Horn Brewery, a three-story wooden restaurant on Hilyard and Broadway, decorated with mounted animal horns, wooden furniture and lofty windows.
In mid-October 2019, a woman was caught on camera throwing Molotov cocktails at the building and shattering the windows with broomsticks and stones.
Sheehan hosted a community meeting at Elk Horn a week after the vandalism to share his frustrations and strategies about the rising homeless population in Eugene.
Sheehan stood at the front of the room filled with primarily business owners; behind him were stacks of black t-shirts with “EUGENE WAKE UP” printed in blocky white letters.
Eugene Wake Up describes itself as “pro small business Non Partisan group committed to making our community safer,” according to its website. The cover photo on Facebook, displayed across the top of the page in a moody grayscale, is the mugshot of Courtney Lee Albin, the perpetrator of the vandalism. Plastered next to her image is a photo of the shattered window and burned kitchen at Elk Horn.
“We’re binding together and raising awareness and speaking for the small business community that, quite frankly, isn’t represented on city council,” said Nick Wiley, owner of Eagle Eye Media and secretary of Eugene Wake Up.
Although members of Eugene Wake Up see their actions as accountability and as an act of compassion for the homeless, some community members voice their opposition and consider them a hate group. On Saturday night, a group of protestors entered the Elk Horn Brewery and hung a banner from the top railing that read “House keys not handcuffs.”
Sheehan said a total of 18 protesters came into Elk Horn, shouting and standing on tables. He said the restaurant was disrupted for only 10 minutes before resuming service.
What started as little more than a Facebook group has grown to 3,000 members that complain about Eugene’s homeless population; everything from camping around town to littering. Although Eugene Wake Up was started by small business owners, even former KEZI anchor Rick Dancer comments on posts in the group.
The group gained so much attention that Sheehan said the meetings started to lack a clear voice for the business owners, so they implemented a vetting process that includes an online application. There are exclusive meetings for local business owners only and separate meetings that are open to the community.
“We started too big and now we’re going back to really small instead of having too many people and too many ideas,” Sheehan said.
Last Thursday, the exclusive group of business owners elected its first board members. For Marra Watson, the owner of Crux Rock Climbing Gym, it was her first meeting. She was voted a board member and said the people of Eugene are enabling illegal behavior done by the homeless community.
“We need to wake up and stop confusing enabling for compassion,” Watson said. “We're not helping anybody by allowing them to camp on the downtown sidewalks. In doing that, we're telling them they're not any better than an animal.”
Watson said that police should be the ones to prevent homeless people from living in camps.
Although not present at Saturday night’s demonstration, Eric Jackson, a member and activist in the homeless community, has attended a few Eugene Wake Up meetings and been a voice of opposition. The group, he said, is misguided.
“It’s a group that is churning anger and people want to be involved with something that’s happening,” Jackson said. “People who have anger see this group and want to be involved with other people who have anger. They think, ‘I can join them with my anger,’ but that anger isn’t anger. It’s hatred.”
Eugene Wake up is planning to implement on-the-ground footwork to protect the community from potential violence. Sheehan recently hired a security company to patrol the block that Elk Horn Brewery is on, which includes Manola’s Thai restaurant and the Alpha Phi sorority house. Sheehan said all of the neighbors meet once a week and contribute to the cost of the Premier Security guard.
Kathy Segale, the house mom at Alpha Phi, was nervous about the home security after several break-ins late last year. The new security guard, though, wasn’t enough.
“I like the presence but I’m disappointed in it,” Segale said. “It’s $500 a month. We just spent nearly $10,000 for a fence and our house is like Fort Knox now, so I’m thinking I’m not going to need anybody.”
Group members who want increased police response see what Eugene Wake Up describes as accountability as an act of tough love, so that maybe the unhoused population will learn to help themselves. Many homeless shelters and advocacy groups, though, think that people deserve housing regardless of whether or not they are addicts.
“We believe an individual must first get into a place of housing before they’re able to focus on things such as addiction or mental health,” said Catrina Mathewson, the development director at Sheltercare, a nonprofit that provides several housing programs. “It’s like Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, and safe housing is at the bottom.”