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Does Lane County Need A Public Shelter?

A grassroots petition for a Lane County public homeless shelter is in circulation, and as of Dec. 23 it has accrued 680 signatures. The petition is one among several other significant public initiatives in the past two months targeting the homeless crisis in Eugene and Lane County.

“Our existing shelter options are almost always full, with long waiting lists. Even the new rest stop lists take weeks and months,” says Heather Sielicki, who began the petition two weeks ago with the help of THRIVEugene (Together, Housing Redefined: Initiatives for a Vibrant Eugene), a grassroots organization of mostly southeast Eugene community members working to end homelessness. 

Along with the petition, THRIVEugene will, in late January, begin a new “ambassador program” asking businesses and churches in the area to donate space for either the St. Vincent de Paul camping program or the Egan Warming Center.

“There’s no one directly going to businesses asking them to participate. Our ambassador program’s goal is to extend the reach of existing social service organizations into the neighborhoods,” Sielicki says. “With enough participation, we’ll help tear down that waiting list of people who want a safe place to park their car at night.”

The petition says, “Given the long-term nature of the homelessness crisis in Lane County, we need government to commit resources for emergency shelter needs.” It adds that “it is neither efficient, logical or ethical to expect community volunteers acting in an emergency situation to meet the urgent, sustained needs without a public homeless shelter option.”

In late November, the Egan Warming Center, which gives shelter on freezing nights, was unable to open due to a lack of available volunteers. This prompted hundreds of people to subsequently sign up for volunteer training.

Also in November, Eugene Mayor Kitty Piercy declared a state of emergency on homelessness in Eugene. On Nov. 24, the Eugene City Council passed a Dusk to Dawn pilot program, which allows people to sleep legally at city-approved locations around town. The city approved a new site at St. Vincent de Paul on Hwy. 99, as well as a site on Martin Luther King Boulevard, on Dec. 14.

Also at the Dec. 14 City Council meeting, the city passed a Housing First resolution. Housing First is a model in which the focus is on quickly providing permanent housing, not temporary shelter, to those experiencing homelessness, and then offering services such as access to medical care. 

County spokesperson Devon Ashbridge says Lane County, along with other Oregon counties, is currently requesting that the Oregon State Legislature add $10 million to the state’s Emergency Housing Account and State Homeless Assistance Program. If passed, Lane County would potentially receive about “$1.2 million to help reduce the homeless shelter crisis,” Ashbridge wrote in an email to EW. 

In addition, Ashbridge says the county and the Poverty and Homeless Board (PHB) are working on a draft plan for “additional publicly funded shelter beds for homeless persons,” but that plan is still in its preliminary stages. The county doesn’t currently have plans for a full-scale homeless shelter.  

“To my knowledge, that decision has not yet been made,” Ashbridge says. 

The petition, listed on Moveon.org as “Public Homeless Shelter Option for Lane County,” will be hand delivered when complete by Sielicki to the mayors of the major towns in Lane County, state legislators, the governor and the Lane County Commission.