The tents are back. Set up by SLEEPS (Safe Legally Entitled Emergency Places to Sleep), the tents are reminders of two basic biological needs: the need for shelter and for sleep. These needs go with being human, and they are denied to the unhoused in our city.
Eugene prides itself on being a caring, inclusive community. And yet we have a caste of untouchables. As a community, we criminalize homelessness and violate the most basic human rights. We have laws that make it illegal to do in public things that people experiencing homelessness have no private place to perform. These are simple human needs, such as sleeping, sitting or standing for extended periods of time in any given place (“loitering”), and “trespassing” by leaning on a building or sitting on the edge of a planter.
In her Dec. 10 commemorative statement, Navi Pillay, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, focused on Articles 19, 20 and 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) — the rights to freedom of opinion and expression, to peaceful assembly and association and to take part in government.
Pillay noted that millions of people around the world are demanding civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights. “They are asking,” she said, “for an end to a situation where governments simply decide what is best for their populations without even consulting them. They are asking for their right to participate fully in the important decisions and policies affecting their daily lives … [They] have been making it clear they are fed up with their leaders treating them with disdain and ignoring their needs, ambitions, fears and desires.” It is this disdain for the needs and rights of the majority that SLEEPS and Occupy Eugene are challenging. Some of the human rights violated in our community are even more basic than having a voice in public affairs.
Article 25 of the UDHR states: “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.”
Contrast this international ideal with the reality reflected in these local statistics:
• 7,218 homeless people sought social services through Lane County programs between July 2011 and April 2012.
• 2,882 shelter beds were set up at the Egan Warming Center during 15 nights of extreme weather at 10 faith-based sites.
• 2,285 homeless students attended public school in Lane County during the 2010-11 school year.
And the numbers of unsheltered are increasing. The unhoused include families with children, veterans with PTSD, the mentally ill, addicts, runaway youth and impoverished elderly. What happens to them on the 350 nights when the Egan warming shelters are not open?
Conrad Barney, a homeless activist, has been on a hunger strike since Dec. 11. He says one of the biggest problems of being homeless is sleep deprivation. In fact, sleep deprivation is not only a violation of basic human rights (Article 25 of the UDHR), but a common form of torture used on prisoners of conscience and frequently used to break suspects in criminal cases. Sleep deprivation causes anxiety, paranoia and disorientation. It undermines a person’s ability to function. It is a form of cruel and unusual punishment to which the homeless are subjected on a regular basis.
In rousting the homeless, the police are enforcing city anti-camping laws. It is up to the citizens of Eugene and the City Council to wake up to the fact that these laws violate not only Article 25 of UDHR, but also the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, which forbids cruel or unusual punishment.
Please write to your councilor in support of SLEEPS’ modest proposal that the camping laws be lifted. SLEEPS advocates for commonsense policies that would allow the unhoused to sleep safely in designated dry areas and to be provided toilets and garbage receptacles.
Changing these laws will benefit all Eugeneans. Currently the laws push the unhoused out into the wetlands and wilderness areas where there are no toilet or garbage facilities. Fecal matter, another “unavoidable consequence of being human,” is spread by rainfall and contaminates groundwater, creating a public safety hazard for both the housed and unhoused.
The city of Eugene is currently forming a Commission on Homelessness. The tents are back to remind us that the task before the commission is complex. Changing the (anti)-camping laws and exclusion zone laws is only the beginning.