Providing a Place to Rest is Only Part of Helping Others Up

The Eugene Safe Spot, Community Supported Shelters’ first of two legal “rest-stops,” has been in operation since mid-December. The second CSS-managed “rest-stop,” primarily for homeless veterans, is in the process of opening as we get an onsite management team in place. We call this “rest-stop” the Vet Spot for now, but haven’t committed to that name. Both are providing safe, legal, and stable places for people to “camp” within the city.

The term rest-stop doesn’t work for me. When talking about these projects internally, we don’t use that term, we call them “camps.” The city can’t use this term because it legally can only designate two sites within city boundaries as camps. One of these designated sites is Opportunity Village Eugene, which doesn’t have any tents, it has micro-houses. I don’t remember what the other site is, but I do know that the city isn’t allowed to put any more camps in the urban boundaries. So we manage “rest-stops”…wink, wink.

Mayor Kitty Piercy has said several times that we only have people in these camps from “dusk until dawn,” which, in fact, is not really how we operate the camp. The camp gates are open from 6 a.m. until 10 a.m. for folks to leave and from 4 p.m. to 11 p.m. for folks to return. In the morning, this gives people time to get up and get moving, get things together, and then get on their way to do whatever it is they need to get done that day. Every once in a while, a manager calls me and says that “so and so doesn’t want to leave, for whatever reason.” Only one time have I had to drive to the site and make somebody leave. But, there is a problem with making everyone leave every day. People get sick, especially in Willamette Valley winters. I have too much heart to ask somebody with degraded health to get up and go wonder the streets or go to the library and infect a bunch of others, instead of resting in the warmth of his or her sleeping bag. In these cases—when “rest” is exactly what a person needs—we have an onsite manager stay at the site during the closed hours with the folks who are sick.

But what we are finding more often is that, instead of rest, people need activity. Some of the people that we’ve been serving don’t know what to do with themselves. They get caught up in hanging out with others who are “hanging out” around the social service handouts of this town. This town has a big heart, but I’ve seen too many people get enabled to the point of being disabled and whiny. We include the campers in the work at the sites, like setting them up and keeping them clean. During set up of the Vet Spot, a guy was working with us for maybe two hours and said, “Damn, I haven’t worked this much in a while!” I’ve heard this several times from several people at our camps. Most of the time this requires people being at the site during the day.

The CSS style of camp, which requires a level of self-responsibility, has not worked for everyone that we’ve given a spot to. We’ve seen a few people with drug addictions not be able to assimilate into the culture of our camps. We’ve seen some folks with drug issues get Supplemental Security Income from Social Security at the first of the month and then disappear for about four or five days. When they return, they are coming off of something. This is a troubling situation, especially because in some cases it is being fueled by government handouts—though it’s important to note that it is not just the unhoused who misuse government assistance and only a few of them do.

During a meeting with the River Road Neighborhood Association I was pleased to hear that they also want to be involved with the Vet Spot camp at the corner of Northwest Expressway and Chambers. They asked, “What can we do? Can we bring them anything?” I said, “Don’t bring them anything. The best thing you can do for this new camp is give them something to do, give them a purpose, make them useful.” I will constantly drive this point home. A person with a healthy purpose in life will pursue the things necessary to help them fulfill that purpose.