New homeless camp in Eugene makes nobody happy

EUGENE — It's not easy finding a place for a homeless camp.

Just ask the Eugene City Council.

No one seems to be happy with the council's decision on Monday to authorize a 15-person homeless camp in the city-owned parking lot that serves the Science Factory and Cuthbert Amphitheater.

The council picked the parking lot, near Autzen Stadium, as a campsite for some of the occupants of the homeless "Whoville" camp at Broadway and Hilyard Street. The council on Monday agreed to shut the unauthorized 40-or-so-person Whoville camp by April 15.

The new camp would be in the lot next to an already-approved vehicle camping site for homeless people. Together, the two camps could not exceed 15 people.

But the Science Factory, which is geared toward children and families, doesn't like the idea of the homeless camp being in the lot used by its patrons.

"We get 30,000 to 40,000 visitors a year, and we are concerned about anything that would impact people's choices to visit," Executive Director Carolyn Rebbert said Wednesday.

The homeless camp can't open unless a group agrees to manage it according to city rules.

That appears to be in doubt because Whoville supporters say a 15-person camp in the Science Factory's parking lot would be too small.

The negative reactions show the complexities of shutting Whoville, especially in less than a month, said Council President Chris Pryor.

"If a viable alternative would come forward, I would be the first one to advocate for it," he said. "But the parking lot near Autzen is the only option I'm hearing right now."

Other groups that operate in Alton Baker Park, including the private management firm that runs Cuthbert Amphitheater and the nonprofit Nearby Nature also have concerns, Rebbert said.

Since January, the council and City Manager Jon Ruiz have moved slowly toward closing Whoville. The officials have struggled with wanting to disband the tent encampment while providing alternative legal places for occupants to spend the night.

The council last year approved the concept of 15-person homeless camps on city property, called "rest stops."

The camps are to be supervised by "hosts," and the areas run according to agreements between the site operators and the city. The city could terminate the camps if the agreements are violated.

The first camp, near Roosevelt Boulevard and Garfield Street, is fully occupied. It's managed by the nonprofit Community Supported Shelters.

The second camp, under the same management, is accepting occupants a short distance away, near the Chambers Street overpass and Northwest Expressway.

The two camps are in addition to Opportunity Village Eugene, where about 30 homeless people live in small wooden structures on city-owned land on Garfield Street, near Roosevelt Boulevard.

Wanting to close Whoville in April, the council last month designated another 15-person camp site at Chambers Street and Northwest Expressway.

But homeless activists objected, saying the grassy, sloped area was unsuitable for Whoville occupants with physical disabilities, and too far from downtown social service agencies.

Pryor said he was told that Community Supported Shelters was so concerned about another camp being located at Chambers Street and Northwest Expressway that it would have withdrawn as manager of the second camp if the new camp was established.

Pryor, who represents southwest Eugene, said that for all these reasons, he thought of the flat, paved city-owned lot next to the Science Factory as an alternative. The city also owns the Science Factory site and leases it to the nonprofit group.

"We needed to figure out a way to accommodate the people at Whoville, not just throw them out on the streets," Pryor said.

Pryor said he rushed to put a proposal together because the council was about to take a month break, starting on Wednesday.

On Monday morning, Pryor left a phone message for Rebbert, of the Science Factory, telling her that he intended to make the parking lot proposal to the rest of the council later in the day. He did not talk with her about the idea beforehand.

Rebbert said the Science Factory has had no problem with the campers in the vehicle camping site, which is managed by St. Vincent de Paul. The site currently has four vehicles.

But Rebbert said the City Council's motion for the homeless camp site would give preference to Whoville occupants with physical disabilities or mental illnesses.

"We would like to ask questions about that," she said. "Would folks with mental illnesses be getting the treatment they need? How would that work?"

Meanwhile, members of the "Whoville Coalition," which includes homeless activists and Whoville residents, say a camp needs to have more than 15 residents to succeed.

Whoville residents who have physical or mental disabilities or addictions need help from other camp occupants, said Jennifer Frenzer, a member of the coalition. Other campers do chores to support the camp, she said.

Finding another camp location would be easier if the city convened a site selection team including Whoville advocates, occupants, city staff and even city councilors, Frenzer said.

So far, this type of collaboration has been missing, she said.

"It's fatiguing and tiring for everyone, and creates adversarial relationships that derail great ideas," Frenzer said.

Representatives of the Science Factory, Cuthbert Amphitheater, Nearby Nature and the Whoville Coalition are to meet sometime next week to discuss the situation, said Emily Shelton, the Science Factory's marketing and communications director.

"The purpose of the meeting would be to discuss this proposed site and decide what our options will be regarding influencing the City Council," she said.

The council is to resume meeting on April 9, less than a week before the planned shutdown of Whoville.

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