In 2019, Eugene had the highest homelessness rate of any city in the entire country. In a supposedly progressive city — without the insane housing prices of New York or Los Angeles — thousands weather the elements on our streets.
Since then, homelessness in Lane County has skyrocketed by about 50% to 3,245 people actively experiencing homelessness, the Register-Guard reported. As a UO student, this increase is hard to miss. Overcrowded tent communities greet me on my way to work. Children ask me for money on the street. And now that the federal eviction moratorium is set to end on August 1, experts warn that thousands more could lose their housing.
A humanitarian crisis is unfolding in front of our eyes. Instead of solving the problem, the city criminalizes the homeless at the behest of Eugene’s businesses.
Eugene’s businesses have long argued that homelessness jeopardizes their livelihoods. At an April city council meeting, for example, business-owner Sahara Valentine implored the city to address the Ferry St. Bridge homeless community.
“We have to deal with the homeless population impacting our businesses,” she testified. “It should go without saying that we do not feel physically safe.”
The danger that some homeless people pose to her business is, to some extent, real. But it should also go without saying that the thousands of homeless people do not feel physically safe either. Eliminating homelessness would solve both problems. But, instead, many of Eugene’s businesses call for the city to pursue aesthetic changes, not tangible ones — to remove the homeless without eliminating homelessness. And the city chooses the former every time, prioritizing businesses over human lives.
Last Thursday, Eugene police cleared the Ferry St. Bridge homeless community — just like business owners have suggested. Signs posted by the city claimed that the site hosted up to 15 tents, but I see the community every day, and it hosted upwards of 50.
The sweep violated CDC guidelines, which discourage clearing encampments to avoid spreading COVID-19. Mayor Lucy Vinis also acknowledged the “trauma” that clearing encampments causes campers. The city did it anyway. Instead of listening to these guidelines, they listened to business owners.
The very next day, the city targeted homeless people again. In a 7-1 vote, the City Council passed new parking regulations that discourage homeless people from sleeping in their cars in commercial areas. Starting on July 24, the city will ask Eugene police to harass homeless people sleeping in their cars. The city argues that the change will encourage more traffic to Eugene’s businesses — but, again, this requires the city to displace and harass homeless people.
To be fair, business owners have legitimate grievances. Valentine, for example, cited multiple incidents of people harassing her clients. Those are real concerns, and the city should take them seriously. Displacing homeless people, though, only makes the problem worse. How can we expect homeless people to gain stability if the city constantly disrupts their lives?
Put simply: The city is spending your money to push more people deeper into homelessness.
Growing evidence reveals a better path: Give homeless people resources. For example, Canadian researchers designed a randomized controlled study where they gave 50 homeless people 7,500 Canadian dollars and compared their progress to 65 control subjects. The results were remarkable. The cash transfer group found stable housing faster. They ate more and healthier. By the end, all but three escaped homelessness. Their progress was so significant that they saved the community money because they no longer used costly emergency shelters.
Critics of cash transfers often suggest that homeless people will become dependent on the government and spend the money on drugs and alcohol. Researchers find the exact opposite. The Canadian study — like 30 other studies on cash transfers — found that they reduce spending on drugs. As psychologists have found, when people have the resources and hope that they can escape poverty, they make better decisions.
This is the fundamental contradiction of our insistence on homeless people’s self-reliance. In trying times, we rely on one another. We turn to friends and family. We ask our professors for extensions. We cash stimulus checks and Facetime our moms. Our support systems allow us the security to make good decisions. Why not afford homeless people the same?
By not doing so, the city of Eugene is worsening homelessness. It is costing taxpayers money, straining businesses and ruining lives. Homelessness is not an eyesore that the city can sweep away. It is a humanitarian crisis that it must address.