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Homeless Camp Moves, Maintains Purpose

Photo Adrian Black
Photo Adrian Black

James Chastain’s tent sat by Ferry Street Bridge for a week. He pitched camp and others followed — three, then five, then 20. “It became a neighborhood,” he says. Homeless advocates say a neighborhood — or at least a safe place for the many homeless people in Lane County to sleep — is still needed.

On Aug. 15, the Eugene Police Department cited Chastain, an activist with SLEEPS (Safe Legally Entitled Emergency Places to Sleep), for “prohibited camping.” The protest campsite swiftly moved to Wayne Morse Free Speech Plaza that day after the charges against 22 homeless and free speech advocates protesting at the plaza were dismissed as unconstitutional by Eugene Municipal Court Judge Karen Stenard.

SLEEPS chose the bridge area to call for the release of results to a police misconduct investigation following the June arrests of eight homeless campers there. Moving to the plaza was intended to celebrate the judge’s ruling and to spur revision of Lane County’s overnight curfew for the space. County commissioners have not yet scheduled discussion of lifting or altering the curfew.

“Homelessness hasn’t been identified very clearly in the public vision,” says Commissioner Pat Farr, member of the county’s Human Services Commission, where a subcommission on homelessness remains in formulaic stages. “Let’s address the issue [of places to sleep] rather than the [SLEEPS] gathering itself,” he says.

“We’d like to have designated places to sleep,” Chastain says. “If they’d give us that, we’d be glad to get off the plaza.”

“With the sweeps in West Eugene, it’s left everything in utter turmoil,” says Wayne Martin, a retired minister on the Opportunity Village steering committee. “We’re just going day by day, trying to find them a place that’s safe.”

“Y’all do know the Mission is full?” said camper Stephen Smith to police, during Chastain’s citation. Eugene Mission’s capacity recently fell from 500 to 300. Add to that evictions from West Eugene Wetlands and the sleepers just aren’t sleeping.

 “Opportunity Village is a great model, but it barely scratches the surface,” says activist Florence Emily Semple. “There are thousands of people with nowhere to sleep. At 3 am [they] are just looking for a place to lie down. It’s a huge need, and it’s so easy to not see it because you’re home, asleep in your own bed.”