The Veterans Safe Spot, managed by Community Supported Shelters, is moving from Chambers and Northwest Expressway to property within the campus of the Eugene Mission. With that move, beginning in early June, residents will go from living in tents on platforms to Conestoga Huts with access to electricity and the meals, showers, and other services provided by the Mission. They will also be required to be—and to stay—sober.
The new camp will open with up to six Huts, with four others ready to go, and will be set on a large open lot that was used for the Mission’s newspaper collection program, which ended about two years ago. The camp for veterans will be developed amidst the Mission’s eleven buildings on its 7.5 acre property on West 1st in Eugene, but it will continue to be independent of the Mission. “What’s important for us to remember is we’re on Mission property but it is our own program,“ says Erik de Buhr, executive director of CSS.
The Mission provides shelter, meals, and a variety of services for 400–600 homeless people every day, more than any other program in Lane County. It is forthrightly Christian-based, but the current staff is consciously trying to counter an impression that “they force God down the throat,” of their guests, says Jack Tripp, executive director. Mandatory chapel attendance was ended about a year ago. “We are not backing away from the fact that we are a Christian organization because we are, but I couldn’t find anywhere in the Bible where Christ shoved his message down people’s throats.”
That’s one of many ways the Mission has changed in Tripp’s four-and-a-half years there. “We kind of killed the Eugene Mission,” he says. “It’s destroyed. That thing you knew before doesn’t exist anymore. That was a homeless shelter; that was a flophouse—it enabled homeless folks to sit here forever.“
Now, he says, the Mission is becoming a “wellness shelter” for homeless people. Among the new initiatives are a Life Change program, a one-year intensive Christ-centered recovery program for up to 60 men and women; a Community Social Service Hub, which brings agencies serving the homeless to the Mission; and active case management, which means all residents have a staff member who knows their situation and tries to steer them toward wellness. Except for those who are severely mentally ill, who can stay indefinitely, there is little patience for those not making progress.
“If you come to the Mission you cannot sit here,” Tripp says. “You will be case-managed. So if you don’t want to be case-managed, go somewhere else.”
All guests are required to shower every day and wear hospital scrubs to bed so their cloths can be cleaned. Men, women, and women and children sleep in separate quarters and eat at different times. And the Mission has a zero-tolerance policy toward use of alcohol and drugs. They test randomly or when someone displays signs of intoxication. One positive test and you are kicked out for six months.
When Tripp heard that CSS was looking for locations to place Huts, he suggested the unused newspaper collection area. He was especially supportive because the camp was targeted to veterans. “We have such a heart for veterans because we serve so many now—that it just seemed to be a no-brainer.”
Sobriety was the one requirement that Tripp insisted on. At the current Vets Camp location, residents are allowed to drink off-site and it generally takes three “write-ups” for drinking in camp (or other rule violations) before eviction. Tripp was concerned that any drinking within the Mission campus would undermine all the people trying to stay sober. De Buhr agrees, “The big thing is maintaining sobriety because if we don’t, we’re basically putting a thorn into their program.”
Beyond that, de Buhr thinks promoting sobriety is critical in helping homeless veterans. “I feel like we need to support them beyond just giving them shelter. We need to work with the addiction issue because otherwise we’re just moving alcoholics into houses without really meeting their deeper need. So when the opportunity came up to move, to have space at the Mission, it was a chance to take that next step.”
All people moving to the camp will be required to be sober. De Buhr estimates that of the nine people currently in the Vets Camp, one is alcoholic and four or five drink regularly. Anyone struggling to stay off drugs and alcohol will be asked to go through a 90-day in-patient treatment program through Willamette Family Treatment Services before moving to the Mission site. Residents at the camp will be tested by CSS camp managers, but the consequences of a positive test will be different than those the Mission enforces: residents will have to leave the camp for two weeks, but they will have a place to go. A small fenced-in area connected to the remaining Chambers Safe Spot camp will be set up for those in “exile.”
Campers at the current Vets Camp site have shown mixed reactions to the move. De Buhr met with them in mid-April to discuss it and by the end of the meeting, “They were fine with it,” he says. But in the time since then, some concerns have emerged. “Some of the vets there have a preconceived idea of the Mission and they’re pretty unhappy about it,” he says. “There is a rebel-like tendency in homeless culture, and it will be up to them to decide what to do in the end. A few of the campers who don’t engage so much in homeless culture are happy about it.” One vet has already agreed to the 90-day treatment program if he’s still struggling to stay sober when it’s times to move.
“Change is hard and change is a process,” de Buhr says.
At the meeting, he asked the campers if CSS offered a choice between a “wet” camp where they were allowed to drink and the Mission project with the sobriety requirement, which would they choose. “Nobody chose the wet camp,” he says. Another meeting is scheduled for early May, and de Buhr hopes he can again clarify the intentions behind the move and counter any pessimism that has developed.
Both Tripp and de Buhr acknowledge that their respective organizations take different approaches to serving the homeless, but as they’ve worked on this common project, they see important similarities as well.
“We’re different in a lot of ways,” Tripp says, “but we share our love for the homeless.” And he sees more than that.
“When you’re serving in these kinds of ministries, you get kind of a tunnel vision towards those you are serving,” he says. “We think about the community at large not just the homeless. We are told by God to do two things: to love him with everything we have and to love our neighbor as ourselves. Well, why would I think that those who have homes are not my neighbors as well. So our efforts in the past of enabling, I think, were really hurting this community, and now by being used by the Lord to try to help folks get well, that’s well for the community, too.”
Both CSS Safe Spot campers and participants in the Mission’s Life Change program volunteer with Eugene’s Parks and Open Space Division to do work in city parks. “Isn’t that great?” Tripp says. “This is about really trying to help this community—and neither of our organizations are enabling. We’re loving.”
“What the Mission is doing is impressive,” de Buhr says. “They serve the most homeless people of any organization in Eugene and they do it without tax dollars. Eugene’s not big enough for us to not be working together. We have to share resources and be talking to one another. We both want to hold people to some standard. It’s really important that people feel they have certain standards to meet. If they don’t, chaos just takes over. We don’t work as hard as we do to enable a few people to just continue their path downward.
“The Mission is trying to do a lot of down-to-earth kind of things, and I’m totally about being down-to-earth and trying to create programs that help people improve their situations—whatever that improvement looks like for them. Somebody can be making just a minute improvement and to me that’s just a huge success.
“Our organization tries to push for changes in redefining what citizenship can look like,” de Buhr says, “so active citizenship can be distributed to larger amounts of people, and you don’t need to have all the advantages of society to become a contributing member.”
When the Mission site became a possibility there was some discussion of that becoming a fourth Rest Stop managed by CSS, of keeping a camp going at the current Vets Camp site. In addition to the Vets Camp and the adjacent Chambers Safe Spot, CSS manages a Rest Stop at Roosevelt and Garfield. The Rest Stops average about 15 residents each. But de Buhr concluded that would have put too much strain on CSS resources. By keeping resources concentrated on three camps, it may even be possible to serve as many people as four camps could handle, he says.
Both de Buhr and Tripp recognize that our community lacks facilities for homeless addicts and alcoholics who get kicked out of the Mission, the Rest Stops, or other programs: a “wet” shelter or camp. “We realized we couldn’t house those who are using,” Tripp says. “Does that mean we don’t have a huge heart for those who are using? We do. I do pray this everyday: ‘God if you want us to open a wet shelter someday, give me two million bucks and we’ll do it.’ This community needs one because I think if we can pull those men and women out of the woods, we can at least get a relationship started with them to get them into case management. But it’s not happening now.”
“I’m not opposed to a wet camp,” de Buhr says, “because I think a wet camp could actually sober some people up because they would be surrounded by that behavior exaggerated. But to find a place for a wet camp, that’s crazy. It would be like running hell.”
As it is, both organizations struggle with funding and resources. Tripp says the Mission operates on a budget of $2 million a year and they need $3 million to do what they want to do, and the staff of 30 full-time-equivalent positions should be 50. De Buhr says CSS wants to keep growing and exploring new ways of providing shelter for people who have no place to go but they have to be careful of spreading themselves too thin. “You have to be wary of compassion burnout. We don’t want to run this organization we’ve been building for several years into the ground.”
Fundraising for the Vets Camp at the Mission was initiated by Eugene Mayor Kitty Piercy. So far, about $14,000 has been raised toward a goal of $25,000 to get the camp up and running, de Buhr says. The First Congregational Church is planning a month-long fundraising campaign with the hope of gathering an additional $10,000. Those funds cover the cost of the Huts, electric hookups, porta-potties, garbage collection, drug testing kits, and some operational costs for CSS.
De Buhr sees enough room and infrastructure at the Mission site to develop microindustries for campers to work in at some point. One possibility would be composting: “Where people would learn how to make soil and then we could sell the soil to the community for gardening.” But that’s still just a possibility.
“We have a saying ‘grow as we go’ and ‘grow slow,’” he says. “We’re not promising anything but the old site had no potential to create microindustries, but with this site we have a lot of potential.”
The transition to the new site will begin in early May, with the removal of tent covers and periphery equipment at the NW Expressway camp. The first step at the Mission will be to put up a fence between the camp site and the building to the east that houses classes and physical fitness activities for the Mission’s women’s Life Change program. Huts will be added in increments of three, de Buhr says, to best accommodate volunteer work parties. As many as 15 Huts could eventually be placed there, he says.
De Buhr hopes some of the vets at the current site will find housing through the Veterans Administration before the move. Others may opt for the treatment program and others may decide to leave rather then commit to sobriety and living within the Mission. All current residents who are veterans and sober will be welcome at the Mission site, de Buhr says.
“I predict a smooth transition, where there is no lapse in service to anybody unless that’s what he or she chooses,” he says.
Leaders within the camp will be responsible for security and addressing any problems that might arise. Mission staff members will be available for support and backup. No formal arrangement has been set up yet for evaluating how things are going, but de Buhr and Tripp expect regular check-ins to assess the situation.
“This is like the next experiment,” de Buhr says. “It’s a good place for us to be to focus our resources and put a little more pressure on some of the veterans who want help to stay sober and to seek assistance with that. Maybe with the infrastructure upgrade to Huts with electricity, people will have more reason to want to stay sober.”
“This is a test for both of us,” Tripp says. “this may last a month or it may last 50 years.”