There’s a growing list of names for downtown Eugene’s houseless population, and the word “travelers” is the latest description. The houseless and their advocates say that identifying the unhoused as travelers is a distraction from the real problem.
“I think that’s the denial that every community has,” says Sue Sierralupe, Occupy Medical clinic manager, “that these are strangers.”
Occupy Medical is a mobile clinic that sets up at the Park Blocks on 8th and Oak every Sunday to help anyone in need of medical attention. On average, Sierralupe says, about two out of every 50 patients they see at their Sunday clinic at the downtown park blocks are what Mayor Kitty Piercy calls “travelers.”
“I have heard them refer to themselves as travelers. It is a descriptor,” Piercy wrote in an email to EW. “I would suppose that some travelers might be homeless and some homeless might be travelers.”
Ján Sawyer, an unhoused resident of the Ninth Ward protest camp, also known as OURS Camp, disagrees with the notion that the majority of the houseless downtown are travelers and questions the legitimacy of the word.
“Whether or not I’m a traveler is debatable, because I lived here for three years before I was homeless,” Sawyer says. “So, does that make me a traveler or not?”
He says he believes the mayor is scapegoating. Sawyer says, “They just don’t want to fix the problem and are looking for any excuse to not do it.”
Donna Riddle, Occupy Medical’s intake manager, concurred, saying the majority of people she sees are locals.
Piercy isn’t the only person raising awareness of the houseless in downtown Eugene. “The owner of Sizzle Pie who has put up a lot of stink about the unhoused is from Portland,” Sierralupe says. “He’s a traveler. He doesn’t live here.”
Mikey McKennedy, co-founder of Sizzle Pie, says of the idea that he is also a traveler: “I just think it’s a really unfair comparison to make. I’m from Portland, but the people who run that shop all live in Eugene. The people who are the heart and soul of the shop are from Eugene.”
McKennedy adds, “We’re not being unsympathetic to the causes of the issues, or the nature of the issues. All I care about is the people who work for me, and they are not travelers.”
Sierralupe says that while Occupy Medical’s numbers don’t correlate with Piercy’s count, whether or not the houseless in Eugene are locals is irrelevant. “No matter where people are from, if people need help, you help them,” she says. “That’s our job as human beings, and that’s why we’re here.”