Houselessness

Wayne Morse Center for Law and Politics Hosts Panel on Houseless Policy and Enforcement

On April 29, a panel titled “How Policy and Enforcement Shape Unsheltered Homelessness in Lane County” was held at the University of Oregon’s Knight Law Center beginning at 12:15 p.m.

A flyer for the “How Policy and Enforcement Shape Unsheltered Homelessness in Lane County”

While much of what was discussed rang true, there were several inconsistencies considering what DSM has witnessed on-the-ground over the last two years — including sweeps, the endless issuing of citations, and the overall criminalization of the houseless. 

The panel featured moderator Claire Herbert, an assistant professor of sociology at UO and a 2021-2022 Wayne Morse Center Research Scholar; Chief Chris Skinner of the Eugene Police Department; Sarai Johnson, the housing and shelter strategist for Lane County; and Heather Sielicki who works for Everyone Village and currently serves as one of Eugene’s Human Rights Commissioners. All were introduced by Ellen Herman, the Faculty Co-Director of the Wayne Morse Center for Law and Politics.

Ellen Herman, the Faculty Co-Director of the Wayne Morse Center for Law and Politics starts the “How Policy and Enforcement Shape Unsheltered Homelessness in Lane County” panel discussion. [James Croxton // Double Sided Media]

“What I’m trying to get at with this conversation today is a better understanding of the way local leadership and authorities, like these three people here, understand the problem of unsheltered homelessness in Eugene and Lane County.” Herbert said. “And to learn more about what efforts are underway to address this problem and how each of these people sees their role as mediating these problems in our community.” 

Editor’s Note: Double Sided Media, out of respect, has a longstanding guideline that recommends the use of “houselessness” and “houseless” over “homelessness” and “homeless.” 

The Panelists

Each member of the panel explained their role within the community and also those regarding houselessness. 

Chief Skinner explained that he feels the police are torn by the role of enforcement in the system—the same system responsible for “public safety” —and that he wants to think about ways that law enforcement can be “removed” from the equation. Explaining further, he said that he wants law enforcement to “back our way out of a system that has been built to fail individuals over, and over, and over, again.” 

The “How Policy and Enforcement Shape Unsheltered Homelessness in Lane County” panel discussion featuring, from left to right, Claire Herbert, Chief Chris Skinner, Sarai Johnson, and Heather Sielicki. [James Croxton // Double Sided Media]

“What are the systems that we need to put into place that allows for our police officers to do really what they are trained to do,” said Chief Skinner. “Which is to protect life, and property, and safety, and do great investigations and try to really intervene on behalf of victims.” 

Later on in the discussion, Chief Skinner eluded to what he’d rather the department focus on: solving more issues closer to his heart such as preventing and cracking down on “human trafficking and commercially sexually exploited children.”

Sarai Johnson said that she “originally started as a joint employee between the City of Eugene and Lane County, the one-and-only who’s ever existed” before adding “let me just say, I don’t think they should try it again.”

“It’s just hard,” Johnson said. “If you’re going to work for government, just pick one.” 

Johnson said that her role was to “work with the municipalities to move forward 10 recommendations that were written-up in a document called the Lane County Shelter Feasibility Study.”

Initially, Johnson explained that her work shifted along with the COVID-19 pandemic. Originally, she was focused on emergency respite shelters in response to the stay-at-home orders. That need continued as shelters began to limit spots in order to comply with social distancing protocols. Now, she is focusing on the root of the problem. 

“In all reality, homelessness at its root is a housing problem,” Johnson said. “Our housing market here is virtually impossible for somebody who doesn’t have a lot of resources or support to break into.” 

The county is in “the first steps” of addressing the lack of housing by looking at ways to help municipalities and unincorporated communities remove barriers to housing production.

“One of the big reasons why it’s so hard to build here in Oregon and so difficult to identify places where people are able to go is because we have extremely strict land use policies,” she said. 

Johnson reminded the audience that Oregon was officially founded as a whites only state with a long history of exclusionary laws and practices. Though many of the exclusionary laws have been repealed, the state’s constitution wasn’t fully amended to remove the last of the sundown and racist content until 2002. But that has had little effect on the housing market. 

“Those policies that we have around land use conservation and the way that we develop land are rooted in that white supremacist exclusionary founding and we have never gone back to the drawing board to, you know, unroot those,” she said.

Though adjustments are being made, Johnson believes that, ultimately, land use regulations and practices grow out of a “rotten root.” She said that changing white supremacist policies is key in tackling the issue and helping people attain and stay in housing successfully. 

Heather Sielicki said that she got involved with houselessness in 2015. She was the chair for her local neighborhood association when an unhoused camp set up down the street from her home and she went to meet them. 

“It kind of led, for me, to a long path of trying to understand why people are neglected in this way,” she said. With a background in crisis intervention and emergency preparedness, she wondered how people who had been living this way could continue doing so. 

Throughout her journey, Sielicki has found what she calls “a systems collapse of all kinds of things breaking down at once” that’s preventing people from getting the care and shelter they need. 

She first began working with the government and found that there was no public shelter. Later, she found a Christian mission shelter and discovered that they were only able to provide short-term help aimed at just trying to keep people alive or avoid being “swept up by the police.”  

“I started working with the folks in the religious organizations to find out what was going on and I found that a lot of them were just trying to keep people alive and on a long road of sort of trying to help people, and then they would get swept up by the police, and then try to help them get to another place, basically hiding them.”

Sielicki found the same issues when she transitioned to working with the White Bird Clinic and CAHOOTS.

“I mean where’s CAHOOTS gonna take people,” she said. “Sixty percent of their calls are just transport and without shelter, they’re helping people hide in the bushes too.”

Sielicki eventually shifted into working directly with local shelter providers to better understand the barriers of developing new shelters. This led her to find an Evangelical church planter who was interested in helping the houseless. The resulting partnership grew into the Everyone Village we see today, consisting of a variety of housing types that provides shelter to 51 people in West Eugene.

Now, she wants people to look at and work on all the pieces of this complex problem instead of trying to solve it with “individual building blocks.” 

“We have to look at all the pieces. I’m working with the Chamber of Commerce for example, because one thing I’ve learned is a lot of people associate homelessness with crime but actually it’s because a lot of homeless people can’t work. It’s really hard when you have no transportation, you can’t shower, you have no way to store your possessions. It’s really hard to even, why would you expect someone to work.”

Though Sielicki doesn’t expect that the issue will ever go away, she encouraged the audience to do more.

“There’s 4,000 people on the streets right now living unsheltered and they’re not going to have a place to live anytime soon, right, we’re 20,000 units short on affordable housing for the people who are living here now,” she said. “So, it’s time for us all to understand that everybody who’s out there, they’re part of our community and if we want to be an inclusive place to live then it’s time for us to really work together and take this seriously.” 

Governmental Barriers 

Herbert, a thorough moderator, gave a quick summary of the panel responses before the next question moving into the next question. She asked Johnson how long it would take to build back that deficit in housing.

Johnson responded with a quick breakdown of what the shortage actually looks like.

“According to the state’s recent regional housing needs analysis, we need to build 16,403 units over the next five years in Lane County.” she said. These units would be divided by the urban growth boundary and Johnson happily offered to supply the spreadsheet with the breakdown, if requested. This would supply those who are going to move and those who already do, and are presently houseless.

Metaphorically, Herbert labeled the housing shortage as an upstream problem with major obstacles. She then pointed out that Johnson is working on those while Sielicki helps with those caught in between, intervening to help individuals avoid “hitting rock bottom.” Skinner, and the EPD deal with issues downstream, “the fallout,” and those who have experienced a “rock bottom.”

Claire Herbert, an assistant professor of sociology at UO and 2021-2022 Wayne Morse Center Research Scholar, sits next to Chief Chris Skinner of the Eugene Police Department at the “How Policy and Enforcement Shape Unsheltered Homelessness in Lane County” panel discussion. [James Croxton // Double Sided Media]

Herbert defined the upstream obstacles as land-use regulations and policies and then asked what others are present in the work that Skinner and Sielicki do?

Chief Skinner answered by saying that there is a need for shifting the lens regarding the way society views the houseless. 

“The difficulty for us is, how we as a community, have a tendency to look at it through the single lens of feeling like if you have unsheltered individuals living in and around your neighborhood or areas of business that you’re just assuming that you’re going to be a victim of crime, and I think that that’s just a little bit of an unfair connection”

He believes that there is a “disconnect in the community” in the way municipalities are run and said that Oregon State Statute governs and defines public safety and the law enforcement perspective. These laws and regulations describe the way a victim of a crime is identified and how law enforcement investigates, prosecutes, or finds diversion for those individuals.

Chief Skinner explained that cities adopt ordinances that cause a lot of “pain points in the community.” He said that some of the ordinances make sense, while others cause reason to question the “genesis of the decision.” “But one of the really disconnects for us is how do we approach the concept that it’s unlawful to camp in the city of Eugene,” he said.

He also said that this issue is challenging because some “parts of the community are pounding their fists” demanding that law enforcement do their jobs. 

“‘Enforce the ordinance, you’re a law enforcement professional, enforce the ordinance that’s on the books like we want you to’ and then the other piece of that is how do we thoughtfully go about this so that we’re not enforcing an ordinance over, and over, and over again on the same individual.”

Again, Chief Skinner pointed out that his department is torn in the role of response, public safety, and law enforcement and encouraged discussion around building other “offerings” and “resources” to meet the needs of public safety.

As law enforcement, he feels that his men and women are experiencing a “Groundhog Day” effect due to “constantly responding to the same things over, and over again.” 

Sielicki, on the other hand, has had various approaches and replied, speaking from her human rights commission perspective.

“One thing that I saw that was definitely happening is that people who were trying to get housing were being denied because, here in Lane County, you can say ‘I’m sorry I don’t rent to homeless people’ or ‘I see that you have a break here I’m not going to rent to you because you are homeless.’  So we work to have housing status turned into a protected class at least the city council approved it for hate and bias crimes but not for fair housing. So today it’s still, you could still say ‘sorry you were homeless you can’t live here’ so that’s a bad policy decision.”

She added that this problem cannot be solved by then calling on law enforcement to “move people along.” She further said  that doing so “causes a lot of suffering” for law enforcement and the community, and it makes disaster preparedness extremely difficult. 

This hardship could be seen following the recent wildfires in Oregon and California when people were displaced with nowhere to go.

While many believe that it’s the “job of the religious” to care for the poor, Sielicki cautioned against relying on the “old-fashioned charity model.”

“Well there’s a whole lot of different ideas around what serving the poor looks like and if we continue to try to use the old-fashioned charity model where, you know, helping somebody you’re going to get a better seat in heaven, I don’t know, it’s not going to work,” she said.

She then recalled a few “generous samaritans” who delivered broken dishwashers and a truckload of garbage to the shelter to avoid paying dump fees. As well as another who brought an entire loaf of rock-hard, stale bread. “They thought they were being generous,” she said.

Nonetheless, Sielicki said that it will take “all the players, the businesses, the churches, the governments, [and] the non-profits” to come to the table and work together on solving this. “Otherwise” she said, “they are working at cross purposes.”

Poking The Bear

One moment in the discussion stood out above the rest when Johnson spoke at-length about systematic contributors to houselessness to which Chief Skinner said that she had “poked the bear.” 

Talking about the paternalistic way of thinking about relying on religious organizations to serve the poor, Johnson offered what she called a “true confession.” 

“Basically like one second after I started working for a local government, I was like ‘oh no, I think this accidentally made me a socialist anarchist, like, immediately,” she said. 

Sarai Johnson and Heather Sielicki at the “How Policy and Enforcement Shape Unsheltered Homelessness in Lane County” panel discussion. [James Croxton // Double Sided Media]

She further elaborated that due to this old-fashioned charity model, society has a tendency to give help, aid, and charity with certain expectations.

“They need to earn it somehow, they need to change their behavior in ways we want them to change it because we are the right ones.That is white middle-class norms that we’re putting on other people who do not have the capacity, the experience, and the culture to be ready to do that immediately. So instead we ignore things like harm reduction, even though, in what year was it, like one year ago we enacted measure 110.”

Ballot Measure 110, which passed in November 2020, decriminalized personal non-commercial possession of a controlled substance. Chief Skinner said he  feels that this measure has increased the number of contacts and has made this issue worse.

The measure calls for a maximum violation fine of $100 and “establishes a drug addiction and recovery program funded in part by the state’s marijuana tax revenue.” 

Along with the citation, a person is also given the numbers to Lines for Life. If a person calls the Oregon State Police-run and -contracted substance abuse and suicide prevention hotline and submits to a “behavior assessment,” they may be eligible to have their fine dropped. But that’s only if they seek “help” for their issues by calling the number and only after they are approved for and sign up to receive counseling and/or treatment. 

This is the same state run tip-life offered to students in many schools across Oregon as part of the safe school initiatives. These lines provide the same services to students in districts like Eugene-4J.

Chief Skinner said that, according to the tip-line statistics, out of the 1,500 citations issued for drug use, only 84 people called in the first year following implementation. 

“What started out as a just a legalization measure that was wrapped with six millions of dollars, six million dollars to get you to get all of us to say yes because we felt like there was a path other than incarceration that should bring people to wellness has been challenging at best for us as law enforcement to see where do we fit in this now you’re asking us to just write everybody a citation because the premise is that they’re going to make the phone call and I think it’s easy for us to have been in this space to know that people that are in the throes of addiction and mental illness are not in a great space to be making a great decision about making a phone call.”

Q&A

The main discussion lasted longer than expected and, so, Herbert eventually steered into what would be a Q&A segment with the audience — most of which consisted of concerned neighbors, volunteers with various organizations, and a sprinkling of UO law students. 

The first person to ask a question respectfully asked for a “pronoun check” and asked about how the conversation surrounding the need for housing was going at a governmental level because all they’ve seen is luxury-style units being built. More specifically, they asked how the conversation goes about “creating sheltered housing units for people that are unsheltered versus low income versus median income.”

Middle Housing

Johnson said that conversation looked different depending on “where you’re at.” 

In 2001, Oregon passed a bill that eliminated single family zoning. This bill was focused on the “missing middle housing,” with hopes of increasing production in townhomes, fourplexes, duplexes and other compact housing. These smaller units are designed to fit into the spaces between the current development around luxury style and entry-level homes. Though, Johnson said, entry-level home development “doesn’t really exist anymore.”

How that missing development fits in with the increase in student housing is a conversation that each municipality is supposed to handle. Eugene is scheduled to entertain a discussion regarding the “missing middle”  in May and Johnson urged the audience to participate.

She believes that the conversation will be interesting because there has been a lot of misinformation that has been spread by those who oppose middle housing.

“The challenge is, again, somewhat with people who feel like they weren’t adequately a part of the process which is honestly, primarily neighborhood associations, have come out in droves and have supported deep misinformation that has been distributed under the name of climate justice and housing justice by people opposed to missing middle housing code which basically has a lot of folks who are worried.”

She explained that, though city council’s are not in charge of the housing that gets built, they do make rules and pass incentives to developers. Johnson said that is why it’s important to look at who’s developing. 

“Look at who’s developing housing, are they non-profit developers? No, the vast majority of people who are developing housing in this community are in it to make as much money as they can for as little as possible and those who are not start to become that way because that’s how banks fund things. So if you really want to fight, don’t just fight the government, fight the system which is all of the for-profit companies who are out there trying to you know who are basically perpetuating this problem by having those types of values around housing.”

“I Bristle at the Word ‘Sweeps’’

One of the university’s law students asked how EPD’s sweeps of houseless camps helps Chief Skinner’s repeated assertion that the houseless lack “stability” and how this relates to the upcoming World Athletic Championships at UO starting on July 15. 

“I’ll be honest with you, I bristle at the word ‘sweeps,’” Chief Skinner said in response. “The word ‘sweeps,’ I think, it’s been broadly, and overly, used in every instance that we’ve been involved and, secondly, I would say just because there’s a Eugene police person, there doesn’t mean that we’re the ones that are actually doing anything.” 

Chief Skinner continued by saying “we also know that the minute we show up, we’re the most recognizable public-facing entity there, that we have a tendency, but that kind of, we get brought into that.”

About the WAC, Skinner refuted claims that the police department has been in communication with the city regarding “beautification” ahead of the international event. 

There have been “no discussions around some efforts around beautification, so to speak, of our city as we, for the first time ever hold an event on American soil and will be seen by over a billion people worldwide,” Chief Skinner said. “We don’t have those discussions about what do we need to do in preparation of that so that we can put on, you know, a good face for people.”

Actions Speak Louder Than Words

Despite Chief Skinner’s claim that EPD is broadly linked to houselessness and sweeps, the department’s own promotional hiring video—which they deleted and re-uploaded without a scene featuring a Blue Lives Matter flag prior to the Eugene Weekly article in March—is, as of writing, still available, uncut, on the American Zealot Productions’ website and Vimeo account. The video, which DSM first reported about in February, features officers interacting with those believed to be houseless no less than four times — and not in a positive light. 

Apparently, providing service to the houseless as a part of public safety and first response is something that Chief Skinner is tired of doing “over, and over, and over again.” And, put simply, is something he would rather “back out of” and just not do, leaving EPD to do the more glamorous, and higher paying, aspects of the job.

The panel discussion in its entirety can be viewed on YouTube.

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