By Adam Vaughan
On a snowy December morning in 2008, 60-year-old homeless veteran Thomas Egan’s body was found frozen near the corner of Blair Boulevard and West First Avenue in Eugene. His death was a reminder to all of the dangerous effects of the cold winter weather on the homeless population in Eugene. As a result, the city began a yearly warming shelter program named after Egan, providing the homeless with sleeping quarters when temperatures drop below freezing.
With the current frigid temperatures of the winter months are already well upon the Pacific Northwest, the city of Eugene is preparing to provide additional resources, such as the Egan Warming Center, for aid those without a place to sleep. Just last week, city council members voted to spend more than $200,000 on additional efforts to give the homeless places to keep warm during the winter. While these resources are important to the safety and wellbeing of the homeless population in Eugene, they are also only temporary solutions to the serious homeless problem the city faces. As a result, the Eugene City of Council has begun conversations recently over a proposed homeless village called Opportunity Village, where those without a place to stay would be able to stay in a community of simple housing structures.
Michael Carrigan, a task force member and community organizer with Community Alliance of Lane County, has been working with the non-profit organization Opportunity Village Eugene over the last year to develop an idea for what he feels would help solve part of the city’s homeless issue.
“We believe everyone in Eugene is entitled to a safe place to be and sleep,” says Carrigan.
The project would be mostly aimed towards homeless people with children and those with families, an important detail that Carrigan believes would set the village apart from the rowdy and dangerous presence of the Occupy Camp earlier this year.
“The village would allow a sense of community for those living in it and his would allow people to help one another and become inspired and empowered,” he says.
Carrigan hopes that the city of Eugene can move faster on approving a location for the homeless village because he feels saving people lives during these freezing months should be the number one priority. Council Members are currently considering five locations for the Opportunity Village proposal. Of those five locations, three spots are in the Harlow neighborhood.
Chair of the Harlow Neighbors Association Jennifer Yeh says that even though she feels hesitant the village being in Harlow, she likes the idea of a homeless community in theory. Yeh, a stay at home mother of two, developed an understanding of the hardships that homeless people face when she interned at a program for underprivileged youth in Eugene while she was in college.
“There really ends up being a lot more kids without homes than you think when you first start getting involved. A lot of these kids don’t have anywhere else to go and they can’t find housing on their own either,” says Yeh.
But Yeh, along with many other fellow Harlow residents, does not feel that the are would work well as a location for a homeless village due to several combinations of factors.
Wedged between Interstate 105 and a cluster of apartment buildings is one of the possible sites for Opportunity village. It is an empty stretch of grass about the size of a football field, scattered with transmission towers and tall trees. The location is unique in that it is one of the few green spaces in the area owned by the city of Eugene that isn’t a park, making it a candidate for Opportunity village.
Yeh believes that the current high-density population of people living in the apartment complexes surrounding this lot, as well as the other Harlow lots, would be a problem, as the area already has the highest rate of criminal activity in the Harlow neighborhood.
“The other locations are probably better choices just because they wouldn’t be cramming everyone into one spot,” says Yeh. “There could also be an access issue involved because the homeless residents would have to go through the apartment complexes all the time.”
Funding could be a major question mark for the project as well. According to Yeh, many Harlow residents are concerned about how both the construction of the village and utilities costs would be paid for. When considering Eugene’s current funding issues and the city’s large budget cuts over the last year, these costs could potentially be a big problem.
Eugene city councilor George Poling, who represents the Harlow area of Eugene, has expressed some concern over the project as well. Poling is also interested in how the city would pay for the village and wonders how effective it would actually be. In a Register-Guard article from earlier this year, Poling was quoted, “To me, it’s enabling the issue. It gives people that don’t really care, those who want to be homeless, a place to stay.”
Yet 28-year-old Carlos Trujillo, who has been homeless in Eugene for over a month now, welcomes the idea of a safe community. He beleives that finding a place too sleep at night has become very difficult with the cities limitations on open camping and believes that the city of Eugene doesn’t do enough to provide basic resources to those without a roof over their head.
“The city does a decent job of giving out food to the homeless, but the opportunities for places to live seems to be very limited,” Trujillo says.
Trujillo, like many other homeless people, has also experienced difficulty temporarily living in a shelter.
“I lived in a shelter two months ago and it has its pros and cons. You end up cramming a lot of people into a small space and there can be dangerous people there too,” says Trujillo.
He worries though that the plan for Opportunity Village might only provide shelter to a small population of the homeless in Eugene. Because Opportunity Village Eugene has made it clear that the community would mostly be available for homeless people with children, Trujillo would probably not get a chance to live in the village.
The proposal for a homeless village in Eugene is not an easy answer to the city’s issue of homelessness. The process is clouded in complicated details and controversial factors. And while the idea of providing a safe community for the homeless in Eugene offers hope, the uncertainty of whether Opportunity Eugene could succeed in it’s mission remains unclear.
But perhaps the most important side to the issue of homelessness is the human aspect, which society too often overlooks, and it is a positive direction that that the city of Eugene is taking in being open to Opportunity Village along with other possible opportunities for providing the homeless with help.
Dignity Village: A Model for Success
The idea for Opportunity Village Eugene was influenced by the success of a homeless village in Portland known as Dignity Village. Dignity Village, which is located in North Portland, began in 2000 as a community of homeless people living in tents. Four years later, the city officially approved of the camp and began to help support its growth into a long term transitional housing campground for the homeless.
A walk through Dignity Village provides a glimpse into the creativity of the people living in the community. Colorful makeshift shelters consisting of various materials are scattered across the concrete lot that is Dignity Village.
What makes Dignity village so successful is that it has become both self-sustaining and self-regulating. The village is self-sustaining because residents grow their own food and have their own sanitation and sewer system. The community also prides itself on it’s level of civil disobedience through a structural society.
Last month, the city of Portland approved a three-year contract extension for Dignity Village, proof that the site has had continued success for over a decade.