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