The empty lot that formerly housed Eugene’s City Hall is set to transform into a temporary homeless shelter a few weeks from now.
During Monday evening’s work session, Oct. 22, city councilors voted on a plan to convert a portion of the vacant lot on Eighth Avenue and Pearl Street into a day center and dusk-to-dawn pilot for unhoused individuals. The motion passed 7-1 with only Councilor Mike Clark opposed.
“I appreciate the effort to try and do more than we are doing,” Clark said. “But, I think it’s a response and a reaction rather than a plan and an organized effort.”
Clark said that the city should be putting more thought into creating a permanent shelter rather than a temporary outdoor solution.
“I do think this is a bad idea for us,” Clark said. “I don’t think anybody should be sleeping outdoors in the winter. I think we should be doing more to house people indoors.” According to The Register-Guard, he earlier had expressed fears that putting a homeless camp at the site of the torn-down seat of city government downtown “invites public ridicule.”
The proposed temporary shelter will have a capacity of 38 people to begin, with potential for expansion. There will be a lottery system to be able to use the site, city officials said.
It will be “low barrier” and “behavior-based,” meaning even those under the influence of drugs or alcohol are welcome as long as they adhere to reasonable behavior. Once on the site, there will be no drug or alcohol use permitted.
The site will contain restrooms, a heated indoor day center, places to store belongings, three large dusk-to-dawn sleeping tents and potentially light breakfasts available. The day center will offer connection to services, city officials said, in the form “referrals to services and programs” and “case management for overnight guests.”
This decision comes after a recent increase of new homeless camps around Eugene, specifically a protest camp across the street from the Lane County Courthouse on Eighth and Oak, around the “butterfly lot” parking structure.
That particular camp was set up soon after news of a ruling from the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals related to a court case in Boise, Idaho, stating that enforcing a ban on people sleeping in public areas, when there are no viable alternatives, is a violation of the U.S. Constitution.
City Manager Jon Ruiz says the decision to create this temporary shelter is not related to that protest camp.
“The recommendation to use the vacant City Hall lot is not in response to the camp that has formed on the butterfly lot,” he said, “but rather following weeks of careful and thoughtful consideration of a number of potential sites in the greater downtown.”
The city previously said its fines for camping would not run afoul of the federal court decision, but Lane County has expressed doubts at the legality of disbanding homeless camps downtown in the wake of the ruling.
An investigation by Eugene Weekly and student journalists from the University of Oregon last year found that more than one of every four people ticketed or arrested by Eugene police for minor crimes last year were homeless or lacked a permanent address, and court records also revealed that more than one-third of the minor cases involved people who lacked a permanent place to live at some time in the past three years.
The City Hall site will most likely be managed by St. Vincent de Paul, city officials said, as it’s the organization that manages the city’s other dusk-to-dawn programs.
Other city councilors verbally supported the idea of the site regardless of its temporary nature.
“It looks clear and doable,” Councilor Emily Semple said. “I’d like to remind my Colleague, Mike [Clark], a tenth is better than nothing.”
Councilor Chris Pryor compared the idea of a temporary site to medical triage in an emergency.
“We need to do something sooner rather than later,” Pryor said. “While I don’t think this is the most elegant solution we could have, it’s what we could have now.”
Pryor also said if the site is successful, it could be replicated in other areas around town.
Although Ruiz made a point to say this plan is not in response to the protest camp at the butterfly lot, Clark still had concerns about the effectiveness of motivating people use the temporary site.
“Obviously I don’t think we could force people camping at the butterfly lot to go over and be in this, isn’t that correct?” Clark asked Ruiz.
Clark elaborated that currently the county is not allowing any action against that camp. “Currently the county is not going to enforce on that site,” Clark said, “so technically speaking, for those that are not willing to fit into the model of behavior-based appropriate behavior, and or when that [temporary site] gets full, there’s nothing to stop people from camping at the butterfly lot because we’re not going to enforce on that.”
Ruiz said the county could potentially allow the city to issue a trespassing notice to the camp at the butterfly lot with this new option for shelter available. “That’s when it actually could be enforced,” he said.
“We wouldn’t force anybody into a particular location,” Ruiz said. But, he said, the city could direct people to the new site as an alternative.
Ruiz reiterated that it would take a few weeks to get the site operational. “We want to make sure we’re urgent, but appropriately timely,” Ruiz said.
A potential budget for the project will be available to the council in the next few weeks, he said. The money will come out of the $8.6 million the city decided to dedicate to public safety out of its December 2018 supplemental budget.
The site will most likely remain through the winter until early spring.
“We’re not doing this instead of pursuing a public shelter,” Mayor Lucy Vinis said. “We’re on the pathway to produce a public shelter. This is an interim step, a temporary step and an emergency step.”