On a tantalizingly warm mid-March afternoon, Mel Hockley, Tara Latham, and Tom James, armed with pruners and loppers, wade into a tangled thicket of rambling roses and blackberries on the western edge of Eugene’s Owens Rose Garden. Their assignment is to cut back the blackberries and deadwood from the roses. The growth is so dense, it’s hard to see where to begin, and, at first, the three seem as snarled up as the brush, flailing at the thorned tentacles and getting in each other’s way. But they figure out a system. James, who has tossed aside the cane he uses to walk, crawls to the identifiable base of a rose bush. Tara wriggles toward the base of another. They cut, and Hockley, now out of the vegetation, pulls the severed pieces. Daylight and space begin to appear where there had been only briars.
Hockley, Latham, and James are residents of the Veterans Safe Spot Camp, managed by Community Supported Shelters. They—along with two other residents, CSS Executive Director Erik de Buhr, and two city employees—are part of a volunteer work party at the Rose Garden. The Vets Camp participates in work parties with Eugene Parks and Open Spaces [POS] every two weeks, and the Roosevelt Safe Spot Camp has work parties on the alternating weeks. In addition to the Rose Garden, camp volunteers have worked at Sladden Park, Skinner Butte Park, Amazon Park, Tugman Park, and Westmoreland Park.
“We are trying to build this into the culture of the camps,” de Buhr says. In addition to offering safe, dry places for homeless people to sleep, we are trying to promote psychological well-being.”
It’s working for Latham. “Most of the time surviving takes most of our energy, so it’s good to do something beyond that,” she says. “We have good camaraderie and we try to be as helpful as possible.”
And it’s working for POS. “It’s always good to work with them,” says Lorna Baldwin, west region volunteer coordinator, who works with the Vets Camp group and was out with the crew at the Owens Rose Garden. “They give as much as they can give and they have such a great work ethic. It’s a joy for me.” Carrie Karl, POS south region volunteer coordinator who’s worked with both groups, agrees. “They work so hard and it’s a lot of fun. Many them have experience working with the land and that helps a lot in the projects we do with them.”
City staffer Clay Manders, field lead for the Rose Garden, says the tangle in the hedgerow the Vets Camp crew is tackling was the results of ten years of deferred maintenance. Creating space for the rambling roses to thrive had been on her to-do list since she started working there four years ago.
Most of the work the Safe Spot volunteers do is maintenance. A 2014 “State of the Parks” report from POS said that the Eugene parks system had almost doubled in acreage in the previous 16 years but faced a “$2 million annual operations and maintenance gap, due to budget reductions, deferred maintenance, and an increase in illicit activities such as vandalism, graffiti, and illegal camping.”
Volunteers play an important role in maintaining the parks. Baldwin says that POS has about 10,000 annual “incidents” of volunteerism—the number of three-hour shifts put in by 4000-5000 different individuals. Karl says that the Safe Spot volunteers contribute to filling the maintenance gap. “We’re not adding new things, we’re taking care of what we have.”
But the POS emphasis on working with volunteers started before the current budget shortfalls and aims to do more than fill in for deficits, Baldwin says. “It’s a way to build community. People working side by side get to know each other and build bonds. And we also try to build a sense of place, talk about the history and the development of the parks. We try to bring more than the tools and the cookies.” The pursuit of community building fits well with CSS’s core strategy of community-based approaches to addressing homelessness.
It’s readily apparent that both Baldwin and Karl have built strong bonds with the Safe Spot work crews. “You really get to know these people, working with them twice a month,” Karl says. “I find these folks engaging with great personalities and senses of humor. Working side by side I get a sense of their great breadth of experience. We have a lot of fun. We do a lot of teasing that everyone joins in on. I especially enjoy teasing Erik.”
“My whole interaction with the group is wonderful,” Baldwin says. “We make amazing connections. One day I was talking with a group of people from the camp, and three of their dads were loggers. My dad was a logger; I grew up in Coos Bay. Most of these people are from here—it’s not a case of people coming to Eugene because of the services we provide.”
CSS Executive Director de Buhr says his participation in the work parties has helped him build connections with the camp residents. Participating in work parties is a requirement for Safe Spot residents, unless they have medical problems or appointments related to improving their situation. Several Vets Camp residents are missing from the work at the Rose Garden because of housing-related appointments. “From the beginning, we have tried to promote community service,” he says. “At first, we tried having individuals volunteer at NextStep Recycling. But we find people were more into group work. Camaraderie is an important part of homeless culture. People on the street tend to work well together. We want to put that to use.”
De Buhr is clipping deadwood about twenty or thirty feet down the hedgerow from where Hockley, Landers, and James are working. Steve Todd, a Navy veteran who had been on the streets for 13 months before getting a spot at the camp, has opened space around a couple of rose bushes a few feet away. Todd had shown up wearing a sling to protect a dislocated shoulder but discarded that as he went to work. “I don’t mind doing this at all,” he says. “In fact, I really enjoy doing something to help in cleaning up the parks, to pay something back. That’s what my father always taught me, ‘When you get something, give something.’”
Vets Camp resident Steven Lewis is gathering the clippings onto tarps and working with Baldwin to cut them into smaller pieces to make it easier to drag and load them into Baldwin’s truck. When the work party was just starting Baldwin had asked Lewis if he had gotten help for his hearing problem and gently encouraged him to do so when he said he hadn’t done that yet.
Baldwin later tells a story of a homeless man who didn’t live in a Safe Spot camp who asked to join a work party at Sladden Park. After working with the Vets Camp crew, the man was clearly grateful to have been temporarily part of the group and gave Tom James a relatively new pair of Keen shoes that somebody had given him.
Baldwin says James, who has lived outside for 30 years and is scheduled to move into Veterans Administration housing in April, was thrilled with the new shoes even though they were a couple of sizes too big,
“It was extremely touching,” she says, “and things like that seem to happen when I work with that group.”
Karl says passers-by who see the Safe Spot volunteers working—doing unglamorous jobs like weeding playground sand at Tugman Park—often thank her because her clothing identifies her as working for POS. She makes a point of telling people that the volunteers are from the Safe Spot Camp. “I tell them these folks are giving back to their community, caring for our park resources. They set a wonderful example, showing people what it means to be a volunteer.”
De Buhr says that the work of the Safe Spot volunteers in the parks is also notable because “illegal camping” is cited as one of the factors creating the maintenance gap they help to fill. “I heard the figure that Parks and Open Spaces spends $250,000 a year on illegal camping, doing cleanup and increasing visibility so people have fewer hidden places to camp. Community Supported Shelters’ entire budget last year was $54,000. Just think what we could do with $250,000.
“Providing legal places for homeless people with trash cans and porta-potties means they’re no longer in the parks—and the money saved goes well beyond the parks, into areas like medical and mental health services.”
At the Rose Garden, field lead Clay Manders is impressed by the progress. The rambling roses had originally been planted to create a “wall” at the edge of Rose Garden, a border and solid backdrop for weddings that often take place in the gazebo just east of the hedgerow. But she says these roses are known in other parts of the country as “barn eaters” because left to their own devices they will get so out of control they could swallow a barn. Making space between the rose bushes will allow staffers to get in and dig out the blackberries, also known to devour whatever is near them, and allow the roses to grow back much healthier.
“I really appreciate the work these volunteers are doing,” she says. “It’s a big project.”
The Vets Camp crew gets through about half of the 75-feet worth of tangles that Manders had assigned, which is about half of the length of the entire hedgerow. The rambling roses are part of a sustainable landscape—home to a variety of birds including quail and even some bunnies—so half will be left untouched this season. The Vets Camp volunteers will be back in a couple of weeks to finish the section they had started.
“All those people getting married at the gazebo will have a different view, thanks to you folks,” Baldwin tells the group.
“That’s where I’m getting married,” says volunteer Mel Hockley, a resident at the Vets Camp since last August and now assistant site manager, and he laughs as he describes himself as “very single.” But when the work was winding down, he wanders over and sits in the center of the gazebo, thinking of another time. “I used to live there,” he says later, “in the Rose Garden. Hanging out by the tables, hiding in the shadows, looking for a place to sleep. There were nights when I slept in the gazebo.”
It was last summer, he remembers, because the roses were in bloom. But his time in the park ended badly before the summer was over, when someone stole his backpack and his bike, everything he had. That’s when he knew he couldn’t do that anymore and spent three nights camped under a tree next to the Vets Camp before he got a spot inside. He’s grateful to be there.
Hockley, 51, a veteran of the National Guard who was born and raised in Eugene, remembers when the gazebo was first built.
“The gazebo was a good place to reground myself,” he says, “thinking of the past and where I come from. It’s ironic that I ended up on a work party at the Rose Garden. I guess what goes around, comes around.”
Hockley won’t be getting married in the Rose Garden anytime soon, but he already has a radically different view of the gazebo than he used to have.