Monday, September 9, 2013

The Sanctuary at the Fairgrounds

(This is a letter I sent to Mayor Piercy and the City Council on August 29th. Given that the "Whoville" camp is back at the fairgrounds, I realized that its still quite relevant and should be shared.)

Greetings, Mayor and Council,

While everyone has been concentrating on the current controversy that is the Free Speech Plaza, I wish to momentarily draw your attention to the southeast corner of 13th and Adams.

For the past four days, a small row of tents has been set up on a median strip in front of the Lane County Fairgrounds, on County property. They are a SLEEPS-affiliated group of homeless people who are there to protest the camping ban and declare their right to sleep, but they have also been specifically enacting and demonstrating a community living model quite similar to the "rest stops" that the Council has proposed.

They have deliberately set up in a residential neighborhood in order to defy the stereotypes associated with the homeless and to show that they can live peacefully, cleanly, and safely in our community. They have won the support of a large majority of the neighbors, to the extent where KEZI knocked on the doors of several houses looking for someone to speak out against it, and could not find a single person. I have personally witnessed several neighbors come by to show their support, bring them food, and offer their assistance. The only concern expressed by the neighbors was regarding sanitation, and a porta-potty was brought in to assuage these concerns. The protest camp is spotless, military-clean, and police will confirm that there has not been a single incident that has warranted law enforcement action.

Among the dozen or so people there are at least two homeless veterans, one who fought in the most recent Gulf War. There are women there who have chosen to be a part of that community specifically because they fear for their safety on the street. One of the other men who is camped there used to work at LCC in the same department as Councilor Evans. Another older man is there who worked every day of his adult life until he was hit by a car three years ago. He uses a walker and is in constant chronic pain. He has applied for disability twice and has been denied.

As I write this, they are set to be cited for prohibited camping in a few hours. The Mission is full, and there is literally nowhere else for them to go. Two federal courts have ruled that citing homeless people for sleeping when there is no shelter is unconstitutional, and yet I have no doubt the citations will be issued as usual. They are prepared to be cited, to plead not guilty, and fight the charges at trial. They also fully intend to reform their camp on another parcel of public land soon after they are cited, knowing full well that they will be cited again and again.

Meanwhile, over the past month, not only has BLM swept over 200 people from the wetlands, but EPD and LCSO have conducted coordinated sweeps of the riverbanks and other city parkland. There are literally hundreds of people who no longer have anywhere to hide, nowhere to be, nowhere to go. What is occurring in Eugene right now is nothing short of a humanitarian crisis, and I don't say that lightly. These are people, just like you and me, who are literally being denied the right to exist. I ask you to think long and hard about what that really means. They are literally being denied the right to exist, in a city that prides itself as a "human rights city".

What you need to understand about the current SLEEPS protests is that this is a completely different scenario than either Occupy or the first incarnation of SLEEPS. Both of those prior efforts were initiated by housed activists, with the aim of securing rights for those who are unhoused. The current SLEEPS protests, on the other hand, were initiated by homeless folks themselves as a direct response to being evicted from the wetlands and other places. While myself and several other housed activists have been assisting the protesters, we are only in advisory roles this time around. The homeless are running this show, bar none.

Their movement is expanding by the day... people I've never even met before are coming out of the woodwork, willing to place themselves in the public eye and be cited for prohibited camping. In my nearly six years of interacting with the homeless in Eugene, never have I seen such anger, such despair, and such a willingness to engage in active resistance. Right now there are three SLEEPS camps, a fourth will most likely form tomorrow, and from what I am told that number will grow in the next several days. These folks have simply had enough. They are done with being treated as less than human, they are done with their fundamental rights being violated, and they are done with hiding in the shadows. Nobody "wants" to be camped out in the Free Speech Plaza. They are there because there is nowhere else to go. They are no longer willing to hide and no longer willing to be oppressed. They are willing, on the other hand, to remain in the public eye, to be cited again and again, and to clog the courts for months. Such a scenario is not only a waste of time and resources on behalf of both parties, but will most likely eventually result in a federal lawsuit that could easily have been avoided.

Last April, homeless activists were hopeful that the Council would set aside legal camping places that would allow the countless numbers of homeless people in our community to safely sleep at night. Since then, the proposal has dwindled from many sites to only one, in which people will have to pack up every morning, and where there will apparently be no sanitation. From the perspective of an activist, I feel that you have backpedaled due to pushback from the community, and that the fundamental issue at hand is no longer in focus. But I can tell you that while I am experiencing frustration and disappointment, my emotions are nothing compared to what those on the streets are expressing, which is nothing short of pure rage. It is a legitimate rage which I honor in its truth and power, and a rage that I notice is deepening with every day that goes by.

Back to 13th and Adams. Your "rest stop" not only already exists, but it's already serving a critical need for a dozen of the most vulnerable members of our community. It isn't costing you a penny. It isn't hurting anyone. It is not only well-executed and functional, it stands as a strong testament to the fact that homeless people can indeed conduct themselves respectfully in a residential neighborhood. It stands as an example to the community that they do not have to fear the homeless, that they are not all drunks, criminals, and freeloaders. It effectively reflects the fact that the stereotypes and misunderstandings that so many in this community hold towards the homeless are just that: stereotypes and misunderstandings.

I feel right now that the city, the county, and the homeless are standing at a vital crossroads. I see a pressing humanitarian situation that has hit a critical peak and may possibly turn quite ugly in the coming months. I also seen an opportunity for the city to be on the right side of history, even if the county chooses a different path.

The campers at 13th and Adams will be cited at sunrise, but will then have 24 hours to vacate and will most likely be there until late morning. I cannot encourage you enough to go down there this morning, meet them, talk to them, look at their site, see what they have created, and get to know them. And after you do that, I ask that you act with the courage of your convictions and grant them sanctuary somewhere on public land within the city limits, at least on a temporary basis until the humanitarian crisis that is on your hands can be properly dealt with.

The Geneva Conventions declare sleep deprivation to be a method of torture, and denying a person sleep is expressly forbidden in the treatment of prisoners of war. Consider the fact that there are multiple veterans of American wars, homeless and on the streets in this very town, who currently have less protection under their local government in regards to the right to sleep than they would under the Geneva Conventions were they being held captive in a foreign and hostile country.

Sleeping is a human right. Please, let the homeless sleep.

Alley Valkyrie

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Law Enforcement, Hear My Plea

An open request to the police, who surely read these updates:

I must confess that the past seven days have been among the most taxing of my entire life.

Not all of this is your fault...I'm pretty sure that you had nothing to do with the person who threatened me on Thursday, and it wasn't you who kicked a sleeping man in the doorway yesterday. You were also nice enough to not harass the woman whose feet were so infected that she couldn't walk yesterday afternoon. You did the compassionate thing and let her stay on the sidewalk with all her stuff.

However, you did arrest someone for sleeping last night, ticketed several other folks for sitting on stoops, and you entrapped the sister of a friend of mine in a theft sting. Not to mention the disabled man whose fifth-wheel you cruelly impounded before arresting him. And those are only the things that I know about. I haven't even gone through the police log yet today. I'm terrified of what I'm going to learn.

The truth is, I really need a day off. And I simply can't have that if you continue at this current pace. 

And so I politely, respectfully, and sincerely request the following: 

I'm asking you for a 24-hour moratorium on violating the civil rights of the homeless. Try it for just one day. One day in which you don't wake anyone up at night for sleeping, one day in which you don't arrest anyone for existing in public, one day in which you don't needlessly harass and intimidate kids on the park blocks. Just one day. 

In that one day, two beautiful things will happen. You will experience the reality of actually "protecting and serving" without oppressing, abusing, or disenfranchising anyone, and I will experience the reality of sleeping in, soaking in some sun, playing my ukulele, taking a walk by the river, drinking an ample amount of quality beer, and watching old reruns of Star Trek: The Next Generation without having to worry that I'm about to get a text or a phone call from someone that's on the wrong side of your "enforcement". 

This will not only benefit both parties, this will benefit the entire community. Hell, I'll even buy you a beer. 

Please. Thank you. And you're welcome.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Privilege, Entitlement, and the Duty of Public Officials

On Monday, April 22, thirty-three members of the Eugene community, both housed and unhoused, spoke out at City Council against the camping ban, which has been in place for thirty years and denies those without a home the right to sleep in public. Among those who spoke out were members of the unhoused community who have been repeatedly harassed, woken up, cited, and/or arrested for sleeping.

One speaker, an unhoused activist by the name of Hedin Manus Brugh, who has been active in SLEEPS, Occupy Eugene, and similar efforts, spoke to the council about the history and patterns of discrimination against marginalized groups. In drawing a comparison between the historic cleansing of the Moors from Spain and the Eugene Police Department’s deliberate sweeping of the homeless before last summer’s Olympic Track Trials, Hedin looked towards the Mayor and Council in a moment of anger and stated, “I don’t know who the fuck decided that they were Queen Isabella.”

The reaction from Mayor Kitty Piercy and others on the Council was swift and harsh. Not only was Hedin interrupted by both the Mayor and Councilors in the middle of his testimony, who insisted numerous times that he “stop swearing” even thought he had only uttered the word once, but the Mayor further chastised Hedin after he walked away from the podium. “We try to let everyone speak their piece,” the Mayor said, “but we do demand a little bit of respect in the room.”

My gut reaction to her statement was also swift and harsh: She refuses to change a law that makes it illegal for this man to sleep, I thought to myself, and she’s acting all offended because he uttered a four-letter word? And now she’s demanding that HE treat HER with respect? Who does she think she is? What has she done to earn his respect? Does she really think that she automatically deserves his respect because she’s sitting up behind a podium?”

Was Hedin’s phrasing inappropriate? Perhaps. But the word itself wasn’t nearly as inappropriate and offensive as the reaction, which was a stunning demonstration of elitism and arrogance, uttered with an obvious blindness to privilege. By reacting as she did, the Mayor not only effectively interrupted and repressed the voice of someone who is regularly victimized as a result of policies and actions that the Mayor and Council are responsible for, but she demonstrated a greater concern for the comfort and feelings of the elected officials that Hedin was addressing than she did for Hedin’s plight. In that moment, the Mayor took more of a principled and public stance against the F-word than she ever has against the criminalization of homelessness.

Such behavior is antithetical to their duty and responsibility as public servants.

An elected official has no business publicly chastising a constituent who is expressing his anger at policies which are enacted by said elected officials and which infringe on basic human rights. The Mayor and City Council show no respect to Hedin, or any other unhoused person, when they approve and tolerate laws and policies that result in people being rousted, cited, and arrested for sleeping. If the Mayor wants Hedin Manus Brugh to show her respect, she should earn it by acting with honor in her capacity as a public servant. To “demand” respect from someone whom you are actively oppressing is beyond inappropriate.

This is not the first time that our local elected officials have portrayed themselves as victims who suffer from “hurt feelings” when faced with anger from their constituents. In December of 2011, after the Mayor and Council evicted the Occupy Eugene camp on Christmas Eve and after Councilor George Poling had deliberately denied homeless people the right to fires on freezing nights at the camp, several homeless Occupiers responded by pitching tents on Councilor Poling’s front yard on Christmas Day. Nobody was hurt, his property was not damaged, but Poling reacted with fury and righteous indignation, and accused the protesters of victimizing him. Poling claimed that he had been “terrorized”, and insisted that the City provide for his safety, which they did by installing a $7,000 iron fence around his property and posting police officers on his block to ensure that activists wouldn’t be able to make him and his family feel uncomfortable.

Poling played the victim in response to a justified (and harmless) display of citizen disapproval over a cruel action he took that literally harmed their physical welfare. And instead of moving to protect those vulnerable citizens who were harmed, the City moved to protect the privileged councilor who needed a fence because his brick home didn’t make him feel safe enough from the homeless people that he personally victimized. The Mayor and Council sternly chastised the activist community, making it clear that as far as they were concerned, going to the house of a public official to protest “crossed the line” and was “inappropriate”.

I moved here from New York City, and I used to be involved in union activism. When Mayor Bloomberg refuses to negotiate with labor unions, a large crowd of union members and activists show up outside his house with a 20-foot inflatable rat, and stage a protest all day long with the media hovering. Does Bloomberg express outrage at this kind of action? Of course not. He’s a public official in a big city, and its understood that if you’re an elected official and you piss off your constituents, they’re going to express it. Exercising your First Amendment rights on the front lawn of an elected official that is trying to violate your rights isn’t “crossing the line” any more than Hedin’s “F-bomb” crossed the line last Monday night. Such actions are not only appropriate at times, but often necessary to ensure and protect a free and open democratic society.

There is a core principle that Eugene’s elected officials repeatedly fail to grasp in terms of their responsibility as public officials. I offer my view in the form of an open statement:

You are public servants. Your job is to serve the people. And when you make decisions that negatively affect people’s well-being, endanger their livelihood, and violate their basic human rights, you are harming and victimizing the constituents that you are bound to serve. And in a representative democracy, when you act in a way that negatively affects the citizens you are supposed to be serving,
those citizens are going to hold you accountable. That’s the deal. That’s what it means to serve the people.

And if you can’t take the criticism, the anger, the consequences of your actions without crying about “hurt feelings” and singling out those who make you feel uncomfortable, perhaps elected politics is not the place for you.  If you want to feel like you are serving the people without ever having to face any heat or criticism, join a community service organization.  Apply for membership in the Rotary Club. Volunteer with the United Way. Build houses with Habitat for Humanity. But if you can’t deal with occasionally being pulled out of your comfort zone in the face of human suffering, and if you are going to react to that discomfort by oppressing and chastising someone who has already been marginalized as a result of your actions, with all due respect stay the fuck out of local politics.

Respect is a two-way street. If you want someone like Hedin Manus Brugh to show “respect” to you by refraining from four-letter words, you can start by showing a little respect by refraining from violating the basic rights of thousands of people like Hedin. And if you deliberately and consistently refuse to show Hedin and others that respect, then you need to be able to face the music. That being said, if you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen.

I also ask that you keep in mind that the same citizens that you are demanding respect from while high up on your ivory tower, the same citizens who are currently making you feel uncomfortable and hurting your feelings, are the same citizens who will also make sure that you are voted out of office if you continue to paint yourselves as victims and refuse to act with the courage of your convictions.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

An Open Letter to the Mayor and the Eugene City Council

An Open Letter to the Mayor and the Eugene City Council: 

On the night of Thursday, April 4th, fourteen homeless individuals were camped in a group on public property underneath an overpass near the Ferry Street Bridge. Officers from the Eugene Police Department woke them up around 1:15 am on April 5th and arrested eight people without warning, four men and four women ranging in age from 18 to 37 years old. Six others were not arrested and deliberately left behind to “clean up the mess” and take care of the dogs that belonged to those who were arrested. Those who were left behind were told by another officer that they would be arrested the following night if they remained at the location.

The eight who were arrested were originally charged with criminal trespass under E.C. §4.807, despite the fact that there weren’t any posted “No Trespassing” signs, which are required in order for police to arrest for criminal trespass without first issuing a warning. They were brought to the Lane County Jail around 2 am and spent the night there. The next morning, City Prosecutor Dan Barkovic sent an inter-departmental memo to the Eugene Municipal Court, stating that no complaints would be filed for criminal trespass and that “the city has chosen to file the charge of prohibited camping”, which unlike criminal trespass is a violation and not an arrestable offense. The jailed campers were arraigned at the Lane County Jail around noon, where they all pled no contest to the charge of prohibited camping. They were each fined $100, the standard presumptive fine for camping violations, with no consideration given to the fact that they spent the night in jail on misdemeanor charges. They were released from the custody of the Lane County Jail around 2:45 pm on April 5th, and returned to the location where they were arrested.

Back under the bridge after more than twelve hours in custody

While the campers were in jail, police had illegally spray-painted “No Trespassing” in numerous locations on the pillars and walls under the overpass where they were camped.

Paint job courtesy of the Eugene Police Department...

Later that afternoon, I had several conversations with a command officer from the Eugene Police Department about the arrests. After discussing what I viewed to be significant policy violations and legal concerns regarding the arrests, which I have detailed for you below, I was contacted later in the evening and was told that the police were currently “reassessing their approach” to dealing with the overpass area and would not be arresting anyone at the location in the immediate future. Despite this assurance, the campers were still woken up by a police officer in the early morning on April 6th and threatened with arrest, although the officer did not follow through with the threat. I brought this to the attention of the police department as soon as I learned of it, and it is presently being looked into.

The arrests were in part prompted by complaints about the site by a local business owner, specifically concerning trash and debris that does not belong to the people who were arrested. The campers initiated a clean-up of the site as of Sunday morning, April 7th, in order to mitigate tensions with the local business as well as to simply improve the area for everyone’s benefit.

The same location as above, post-cleanup

As I write this, the campers are at the location have not been disturbed or threatened since the morning of the 6th. However, this is obviously an evolving and tentative situation, and I am afraid that the police will again harass or arrest these campers at some point in the near future. 

Given that the Mayor and the City Council are authorized to direct the Police Department on matters such as this, I ask that the Mayor and Council act on this issue and that your decisions and actions in this matter are not only consistent with applicable laws and policies, but that your actions also reflect the City of Eugene’s designation as a “Human Rights City” and the City’s pledge to uphold the principles and values enumerated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

In analyzing what took place in this situation, I have many concerns and have made several observations that are centered around violations of law, policy, and civil rights, which I have elaborated upon immediately below. I ask that you take the following into consideration in addition to conducting your own independent inquiries into this matter.

Thank you,

Alley Valkyrie

Law and Policy Violations Related to the Ferry Street Arrests:

Federal Law: Arresting someone for sleeping when they are homeless and there is no shelter is a violation of the Eighth Amendment as determined by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in Jones v. City of L.A., 444 F.3d 1118 (2006). The court ruled that punishing a person for sleeping in public when they have no other option constitutes cruel and unusual punishment.

State Law: ORS 203.079 states that local policies that govern the removal of homeless individuals from camping sites must require a posting of a written notice 24 hours prior to removing people or property. The campers were arrested without any warning or notice, written or verbal.

Local Policy: Pursuant to ORS 203.079, the Eugene Police Operations Manual (Chapter 3, Section 308.18) states that the police are to give 24-hours written notice when they plan on enforcing the camping ordinance on public property, which the police failed to do. Current police practice indicates that EPD believes that the 24-hour requirement does not apply when citing homeless campers for criminal trespass as opposed to prohibited camping, both in this specific situation as well as for any camping arrests on public property that the police charged as criminal trespassing.

Despite the wording of this policy in regards to the term “camping ordinance”, citing under a different ordinance does not excuse them from the 24-hour posting requirement. Even if we assume for the sake of argument that the specific wording of their policy excuses them from the 24-hour notice as it technically reads, the policy as practiced is in violation of the above-mentioned state law. ORS 203.079 makes no mention or distinction as to any specific ordinances in the context of the requirements. The law refers to “removing homeless individuals” from a “camping site on public property” that is not a day-use park and there is no language in the law that allows a municipality to skirt the 24-hour requirement by citing homeless campers for criminal trespass on public property instead of for prohibited camping.

The officers at this scene also violated Chapter 4, Section 11 (Policy #411) of the Police Operations Manual, which requires that the police visibly locate “no trespass” signs before arresting someone for criminal trespass. There were no signs at the location at the time of the arrests, and the police either did not attempt to visibly locate the signs prior to arrest, or they arrested people despite the known lack of signage. Either way, the arresting officers were in violation of this policy.

Local Ordinance: After the campers were taken to jail, police spray-painted the words “No Trespassing” on the underside of the overpass, which is owned by the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT). I have not found any text or wording in the City Code or the Police Operations Manual that authorizes such an action, and additionally I think its safe to assume that the police did not request or receive permission from ODOT prior to spray-painting “No Trespassing” on a physical structure that ODOT legally owns.

Any citizen caught spray-painting in the identical location would be charged with criminal mischief under E.C. §4.780, a misdemeanor that carries a maximum $500 fine and/or 30 days in jail. Absent legal authority in the form of policy or ordinance, and absent written authorization from ODOT, the officers that spray-painted “No Trespassing” on the underside of the bridge are in violation of §4.780.

Additionally, such signage is in violation of the sign code, E.C. §9.6600 et seq. §9.6615 prohibits “[s]igns in the public right-of-way not authorized by a governmental agency”, §9.6625 requires a permit for all signs unless they qualify as “exempted” signs, and §9.6610 only exempts public signs from permit requirements “if they are located on private property outside of vision clearance areas”. The “No Trespassing” signs that the police painted are on public property, were presumably not authorized by a governmental agency, and were undoubtedly executed without a permit.

Additional Points, Details and Observations

Use and Intent of the Prohibited Camping and Criminal Trespass Ordinances:

Currently, the police are asserting the authority to ticket homeless campers on public property for criminal trespassing as opposed to prohibited camping. The prohibited camping ordinance (§4.815) and the accompanying EPD policies were enacted in order to give the police a specific means and process for enforcing camping on public property. The existence and wording of the ordinance makes it clear that the City Council intended for prohibited camping to be cited and prosecuted as a non-jailable violation as opposed to an arrestable crime, and that the “legislative intent” was not to jail people for camping. The Eugene Police Department is disregarding and bypassing the intent of the Council by arresting homeless campers on public property and charging them with misdemeanor criminal trespass.

City officials have stated publicly on numerous occasions that the police do not arrest people for camping, and this has been stressed in recent months in the context of the discussions around the constitutionality of Eugene’s camping laws. However, the fact that police assume the authority to arrest campers on public property for criminal trespassing exposes the City’s claims that homeless campers don’t end up in jail as false, dishonest, and misleading to the public.

And as mentioned above, whether the charges are criminal trespass or prohibited camping is irrelevant in regards to the fact that EPD’s actions in arresting homeless campers on public property without 24-hour notice was a violation of state law. The requirements under ORS 203.079 are clear and concise, and do not allow for municipalities to exempt themselves from the mandate based on the specific law or ordinance that is being enforced.

Procedural Issues:

The police originally charged the campers with criminal trespass, a jailable offense.  While they were in jail, the city switched the charges from criminal trespass to prohibited camping due to the lack of “no trespassing” signs posted at the time of the arrest. Prohibited camping is a violation and not a jailable offense, and yet they spent nine hours in jail and were still subject to a $100 fine. They were punished TWICE: after being jailed for a misdemeanor that they were not charged with, they were all then fined the full amount for the violation. They were also denied the right to an attorney despite the fact that they spent the night in jail, due to the fact that the charges were changed and then dropped to a violation.

EPD’s Criminal Trespass Policy (Policy #411):

As stated above, the police posted “No Trespassing” signs in the immediate hours after the arrests, and told the campers who were left remaining that they would be arrested the following night if they stayed at the location. The purpose of the “No Trespassing” signs is to satisfy the posting requirement in Section 411.3 of the Police Operations Manual so that the police can arrest people and charge them with criminal trespass under §4.807 without first issuing a warning. However, Policy #411 also states that the owner of the property must have a signed “Trespass Letter of Consent” on file in order for the police to be able to make an arrest. The property is most likely owned by the Oregon Department of Transportation, which I am in the process of confirming. My copy of the Eugene Police Department’s “Trespass Letter of Consent” database does not show this property to have a signed trespass letter on file.

Furthermore, regardless of whether the property has a letter on file or not, and also regardless of whether there are “No Trespassing” signs or not, arresting someone for criminal trespass at this specific location without first issuing a warning does not satisfy the requirements of the ordinance due to the public nature of the location. The criminal trespass ordinance, E.C. §4.807, distinguishes between premises that by their physical nature or usage are considered “open to the public” and premises that are not. The definition of “enter and remain unlawfully” states that one is not remaining unlawfully until they “fail to leave premises that are open to the public after being lawfully directed to do so by the person in charge”. The underpass in question, which is across from the bike path, and has sidewalks leading up to it, is obviously “open to the public”. A crudely spray-painted “No Trespassing” sign that suggests no actual authority and was erected hastily without proper authorization does not qualify as a lawful direction by a person in charge for the purposes of §4.807.

EPD’s Prohibited Camping Policy (Section 308.18):

EPD’s Prohibited Camping Policy is “designed to provide guidelines to handling incidents of camping in the city”. Section 411(B), titled “Camping on private property”, states that this should be handled as a trespass complaint. Section 411(C), titled “Camping on public property” states that those who are violating the prohibited camping ordinance need to be given 24-hour notice before police can enforce the ordinance unless they are camping in a city park. The “Camping on public property” section makes no mention of handling public camping as a trespass complaint, and the manner in which the policy distinguishes between camping on private and public property in terms of what is being violated suggests that police are violating this policy by citing for trespass instead of prohibited camping on public property. The police are undeniably violating Section 411(C) by not providing 24-hour notice when people are camping on public property. In terms of action and description, homeless campers are violating the camping ordinance, not the trespass ordinance, and as explained above, the difference in terminology does not excuse EPD from this requirement.

Complaints, Appearances, and Solutions:

According to the police, these arrests were in part motivated by “quality-of-life” and “nuisance” complaints from people in the area, with one specific complainant being a local business owner. The site itself was substantially littered with trash and abandoned possessions at the time of the arrests, which could be seen at a distance from the parking lot of the adjacent business that presumably initiated the complaints.

The vast majority of the trash at the site did not belong to those who are currently camping at the site, and those at the site did not have the means and resources on their own to clean it up. Assisted by community members, the campers initiated a cleanup of the site on the morning of April 7th. The cleanup is still in process as of this writing, and the City could easily aid in this effort by either providing a dumpster or arranging for curbside trash pickup.

Aside from the trash concern, there is truly no legitimate basis for complaint-driven enforcement against this specific group of homeless individuals save for the fact that they are sleeping in public. They are too far away from businesses to be considered a noise concern, they are mostly hidden from view of the general public, they do not create open fires, and they do not harass or act hostile to passersby. There is absolutely no sensible or logical reason to harass and punish them, or anyone for that matter, for the mere act of sleeping in public. They are simply trying to survive in a society that for some reason does not believe that housing is a human right, and for both legal and ethical reasons, these individuals need to be left alone by the police and by the city.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Downtown Revitalization and the Fight for Public Spaces

A vibrant public space is essential to a healthy city center, and Downtown Eugene lacks a functional and frequented commons. Kesey Square, at the corner of Broadway and Willamette Streets, is publicly owned and centrally located downtown, but it has long been a neglected and underutilized plaza. Originally furnished with elevated terrace seating, and in later with years tables and chairs, it has stood bare for several years now. The seating in Kesey Square was removed by city staff, as were nearly all the benches throughout downtown, at the request of local business and property owners. The theory was that removing benches would discourage the homeless and transient population, especially street youth, from congregating in the square and throughout downtown.
Kesey Square stands nearly empty in the fall of 2011

Those populations have not left, and are still the subject of complaints and controversy. Removing all seating has not only failed in discouraging people from hanging out, but it has arguably exacerbated the problem. Not only do they still sit, but for lack of designated seating they sit anywhere and everywhere, especially in Kesey Square. People are often strewn about all over the ground throughout the square, surrounded by their belongings and interfering with pedestrian traffic. Those who live and work downtown often avoid walking through Kesey Square.
Street youth hang out in Kesey Square because they have nowhere else to go. Kesey Square is not designated a city park, and is therefore not governed by a 11pm curfew, which makes Kesey Square the only public space downtown where people are allowed to congregate 24-7.  Some of the youth who are fixtures in Kesey Square have been excluded from city parks by the police, others have been excluded from the library and/or the LTD station, and Kesey Square is literally the only place downtown they are allowed to “be”.
In addition to removing the seating, the City of Eugene has employed several strategies in recent years in order to discourage youth and transients from hanging out.  In June of 2010, the City launched a “Food Cart Pod” in Kesey Square with five food carts in the hopes that commerce would drive out the “undesirables”. However, a lack of customer traffic resulted in flat sales, and by the end of the summer, only one food cart remained. Other food carts came and went, but by the summer of 2011 there were only one or two food carts that set up with any regularity in Kesey Square, and only for a few hours each day, a few days a week. Other than that, the square usually stood empty save for the street kids, often sprawled out playing card games on the ground.
Those with nowhere else to go hanging out in Kesey Square

The weekly gathering that became the Kesey Square Revival emerged from a collective vision of what a common space in downtown Eugene could (and should) look like. A public plaza should be alive and thriving, with people eating lunch, making music, reading, playing chess, and meeting with friends. And as Ken Kesey himself once said, “You don’t lead by pointing and telling people some place to go. You lead by going to that place and making a case.” We decided to manifest this vision.
On a beautiful Friday afternoon in early 2012, approximately fifty people spontaneously appeared in Kesey Square, bringing tables, chairs, board games, free food, music, street theater, and chalk art. We spent the afternoon interacting with the community, creating a space that was welcoming to everyone, whether housed, unhoused, or somewhere in between. The response to our presence was overwhelmingly positive, and as a result, we gathered at Kesey almost every Friday during the warm months of 2012.
Kesey Square Revival, February 3, 2012

We spent the year continually focused on integrating the downtown population as a whole and creating vibrant public space that focuses on community inclusion, positive energy, economic revitalization, and free expression. We attracted workers on their lunch break, neighborhood residents who were out for a walk, and random passersby who stopped simply based on the fact that something was going on in Kesey Square. We drew a mixed community into the square and created a positive atmosphere.  The same people who came to play chess and chat with friends also wanted to eat lunch in the square, and the two food carts benefited from our presence on Fridays.
Seniors playing Scrabble in Kesey Square

And during the course of that year, we watched as the corner of Broadway and Willamette transformed before our eyes. An arcade opened, and then a hip coffee shop. A movie theater and a pizza parlor were rumored to be in the works, rumors which have since been confirmed. The new LCC building rose from the ground a block away. Office workers were suddenly going in and out of the Woolworth Building and the Broadway Commerce Center. The signs of revitalization were stark and impressive.
However, we also noticed something else over the course of that year from the corner of Broadway and Willamette: an increased police presence, both bicycle and patrol officers who spent much of their time downtown engaging in patterns of harassment towards the “undesirables” downtown and enforcing ordinances intended to criminalize homelessness.  We watched every Friday as the police harassed, cited, and sometimes even arrested the young and unhoused for “crimes” such as sitting on a planter, leaning against a building, sitting on the sidewalk, or failing to cross the street at a right angle.
We watched as the “Downtown Guides” regularly approached groups of young people, obviously based on their appearance, and forced them to “move along” when their only “offense” was congregating in public space.  We noted that this enforcement was increasing as more businesses opened downtown, and we predicted that one of the effects of “revitalization” would be an intensified push to drive the “undesirables” from public space downtown. In November, the Kesey Square Revival decided to take the winter off, with the intention of gathering every Friday again come early spring, but downtown activists associated with the Kesey Square Revival maintained a connection with the square throughout the winter, further observing both signs of revitalization and oppression. 
Police and Downtown Guides in Kesey Square, September 2012. Officer Ellis drove the car into the square to scare away the homeless, and then hung out in the square with his car running for the next two hours in order to intimidate.

A few months ago, the City relaunched the Food Cart Pod in Kesey Square with four food carts. And a few weeks later, Kesey Square Revival officially started up again. We immediately noticed that not only were we not the only people in the square, but the square was quite crowded with commercial activity. There were people sitting at tables provided by the food cart vendors, and others waiting on line for food. We did not have room for the tables and chairs that we usually set up for the community due to the tables and chairs provided for the food carts. There were plenty of places for the customers to sit, but no space left for the rest of community to sit.
 When we returned the following Friday, we came upon the same scene. Tables and chairs set out for customers, people eating in the square, and little room for any other activities. In the meantime, community activists were planning events in the square on Fridays that coincided with the Revival and added to the crowd. On one Friday in early March, an anti-NDAA march proceeded to the square, with protesters in costumes that inevitably conflicted with the flow lunch crowd. When activists who were part of Nuclear Justice week arrived at Kesey Square on a beautiful Friday a week later to do tabling and outreach during lunchtime, the food cart owners could not hide their frustration. The conflict was obvious, and we had a feeling what was coming.
And sure enough, a few weeks later I was approached by one of the food cart vendors, who very politely but firmly let me know that the presence of the Kesey Square Revival was hurting the food cart sales, and that they would appreciate it if we didn’t encourage people to come down to the square on Fridays. He referenced a group who was tabling for nuclear justice and a lunchtime granola giveaway as examples of what was hurting their business.  He pointed out that in such a small square, it was hard for them to operate with our presence.
On one hand, it’s a great sign for commerce that there are finally enough people downtown during the lunch hour to sustain four food carts in a plaza. As a former part-owner of a food cart some years back that did not succeed downtown due to lack of business, I know full well how hard it is out there and I’m glad that the food carts in Kesey Square are enjoying success. They deserve it. But their prosperity is unfortunately directly connected to the City’s agenda of pushing the homeless out of downtown and inevitably has a detrimental effect on all who spend time downtown.
By successfully establishing four food carts in a plaza that’s less than a thousand square feet in area , they City has effectively taken the space away from the people as a commons. Kesey Square is the sole public plaza in downtown Eugene, and now it is crowded with food carts, with no room left for those engaged in non-commercial activities. Not only does this affect the downtown homeless and youth population, which already has nowhere to go, but it affects anyone who wishes to gather in Kesey to play chess, table or rally for a political cause, display or sell art, or just meet with friends. The food carts are not at fault. The City of Eugene is at fault, both for this decision as well as for years’ worth of decisions regarding public space downtown that have been detrimental to the overall population. 
Public space is for everyone, a fundamental concept that both City officials as well as the downtown property and business owners don’t seem to understand or care about. For years, both public and private interests have waged a war against the homeless downtown, criminalizing their existence and systematically pushing them from public space. In this case, in order to drive out those who the businesses consider undesirable, the city has commercialized Kesey Square at the expense of the overall population. The City talks about their role in “balancing the interests” between the business owners and the homeless, but not only does the City not seem to recognize that human rights ALWAYS outweigh economic interest, but any attempt of “balancing” on their part seems to weigh heavily in favor of the businesses. The commercialization of Kesey is a not only a significant loss (and abuse) of common space, but it signifies a renewed effort on the part of the City to “clean up” public spaces downtown, presumably to encourage further commercial revitalization.
We have been caught in the crosshairs of this effort, and while our instinct is to dig our heels in and exercise our First Amendment right to public space, in reality the situation requires a different approach. We wish to develop and retain positive relationships with those who work downtown, especially the food cart owners, and we don’t want to gather in Kesey Square if our presence directly interferes with their business. Additionally we refuse to allow the City to pit us against the food carts in a political fight, which would further distract us from our true goals. For this reason, the Kesey Square Revival will no longer take place until further notice.
Instead, we will spend the next several months focused on an even greater concern in terms of Kesey Square and the City’s attempts to push the homeless from public space. According to reliable sources, the City of Eugene intends on designating Kesey Square a city park within the next few months. Kesey Square is currently a 24-hour public plaza and is not under control of the Parks Department, and is the only public place downtown where people can congregate after 11pm. By designating Kesey Square a park, not only will the City of Eugene will be able to impose a 11pm curfew, but the police will have the power to cite people for violating park rules in Kesey, which means that many minor offenses that are currently only violations under city code will become arrestable offenses that are charged as misdemeanors in Kesey Square. Police will also have the power to exclude those who violate any park rules in Kesey Square through the use of a park restriction. Park restrictions apply to all city parks, not just the park where the violation took place.
Downtown Eugene has no shelters, no benches, and no public spaces that one can congregate in 24-hours a day other than Kesey Square.  If a curfew is imposed on Kesey Square, there will literally be nowhere left to go at night. Nowhere. Nowhere to sit down, to take a rest. Being homeless after 11pm will essentially be illegal ANYWHERE in downtown Eugene. Not just camping, not just sleeping. EXISTING.
40 years ago, Eugene was a sundown town, an important part of this city’s past that many are uncomfortable to speak of. African-Americans were not allowed in the city limits after nightfall, forcing them to the outskirts of town under threat of harassment or violence. As it already stands currently, there is a near-sundown effect in Eugene today as it concerns the homeless, given that there are there are no shelters, no benches, sitting under an awning is an arrestable offense, leaning against a planter or a building can also land you a night in jail, and all parks have a 11pm curfew. Cutting off access to Kesey Square only further cements the sundown effect, making it abundantly clear to the unhoused that they are not welcome anywhere in town at night.
To take away the last public space where those who are homeless can congregate 24 hours a day is to repeat the same bigoted patterns of behavior that defined this city for nearly a century. In viewing the current actions of both the business interests and City officials through the lens of history, we see the continuation of a sociological mindset that fears and targets the “other”, a mindset that with the exception of the specified target, remains essentially unchanged from the ideals that drove the beliefs and actions of our forefathers, beliefs and actions that we consider to be shameful by modern standards.
I am confident that future generations who look back will see the actions towards the homeless to be as bigoted and shameful as most view Eugene’s past as it concerns African-Americans. In the meantime, however, those behind the Kesey Square Revival refuse to let the City further exclude the homeless from public spaces without a community-based response. Our belief that public space is for everyone is why we first gathered at Kesey in the first place, and while we have now retreated from that space as a weekly gathering, it is only in order to focus our energies on the larger picture of preserving Kesey Square for use by everyone, any time of day.
            We will be fighting and publicly campaigning against the City’s plan to designate Kesey Square as a park. We will not allow the City to slip this through quietly and covertly, as is their intention. We will be researching the legalities behind this move, in an attempt to learn what kind of public input or public control (if any) there is over the process, and how to prevent or appeal such a move. We will be publicizing the issue and raising awareness about the intentions and consequences should the City succeed in their efforts. And we invite anyone who shares our concerns to join us in this fight. And if the city does manage to take Kesey away from the people despite our efforts, we’ll meet you in the streets for a summer of civil disobedience.
Respect Existence or Expect Resistance.