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Mic Check! If I Ran the Zoo

How to improve downtown Eugene

Recently both EW and the R-G have been covering the problems facing downtown Eugene. Here are some changes I would make to improve the situation, focusing on inclusivity, safety and getting the most bang for the city’s buck.

First, I would replace the Downtown Guides with a pedestrian team of CAHOOTS-style crisis-intervention workers. I would expect this change to have a quick effect, and it wouldn’t cost the city a penny more.

Downtown property owners pay a Downtown Services District fee that funds the Guides program. The city gives some of this revenue, more than $200,000 a year, to Downtown Eugene, Inc., to run the Guides program under contract. The Guides’ main function is to move people along and call the police when folks don’t comply.

Originally, the city funded the Guides to compensate for the lack of police downtown, back when there was only one officer. Downtown now has nine officers and a police station. Why spend $200,000 a year on a security force that has a hostile relationship with street folks, when so many downtown problems involve behaviors that stem from mental illness and addiction? Security forces, such as the Guides, are inappropriate substitutes for trained professionals.

A patrol of people who are trained to deal with mental-health and addiction issues and that has a good relationship with the people they serve would do wonders in keeping downtown calm. This patrol would free up the police from having to act as social workers or as a crisis-intervention team. 

I would also open a day center at 942 Olive St., a city-owned building next to the police station. Bradford’s High Fidelity currently occupies this single-story building and the city has been trying to sell it for a few years. Put in computers, couches, books, coffee, tea and sandwiches and, perhaps, a kennel in the back for dogs. Keep it open 24 hours a day for anyone who agrees to follow the rules. A center would take pressure off the library and Kesey Square and provide an invaluable nighttime resource for anyone on the streets who feels unsafe. Being right next to the police station will reduce the negative behaviors that might otherwise occur inside or outside the building. I think the downtown police station, or a small police kiosk, should be open 24 hours a day.

More safe and legal places to sleep where people can also stay during the day would help. Right now, 50 unhoused people sleep and live at Whoville, many of whom would be downtown if not there. Long-term, we need more transitional housing, more SRO housing and a public shelter, not right downtown, but somewhere accessible to downtown.

We also need to mandate long-term treatment for addicts who commit crimes instead of putting them in our revolving-door jail that costs us a fortune. These things all cost money, but, long-term, they save money and they’re better for all parties involved.

We need more shops downtown that attract a wider demographic of people. Bars and coffee shops are great, but I see a generational split — young people go downtown, but older folks still stay away because not much is there for them. And the downtown population could use a general goods store. I live downtown, and I have to go to Safeway if I want to buy a mop or trash bags.

And how about a micro-enterprise program targeting the youth downtown? It would give young people an activity, job skills and a potential source of income. Art vending is legal on the sidewalks downtown and in Kesey Square. A lot of panhandling youth would sell their art and poetry — not drugs — if they had a place to produce and to sell their work. Studies on homeless youth show that, if they have the opportunity, most will choose a legitimate way to make money instead of dealing. Street vending is a potent instrument to revitalize downtowns. Let’s make Kesey Square a place for art vending, not for food carts. We have many half-empty and unused parking lots nearby, such as the one next to the Kiva; fill them with food carts instead.

Finally, put the benches back, for goodness’ sake. Taking away benches does not displace the homeless. What it does is keep the elderly and mothers with children from coming downtown.