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Homeless advocates call for camps

(The Register-Guard) — Eugene's elected leaders got an earful of passionate testimony Monday night about the need to expand camping options for the homeless, but took no definitive action.

Several dozen homeless advocates testified at Monday's City Council meeting, many of whom implored the city not to shut down the 50-person camp known as Whoville at Broadway and Hilyard Street, but instead to legalize and expand it as an emergency camping zone.

The activism was prompted in part by the extreme weather conditions of this past week. The Egan Warming Centers are packed, homeless advocates noted, and Eugene's homeless need safe and legal places to camp while the cold endures.

Seventeen-year-old Jacob Abbatello, believed to be Whoville's youngest resident, told the council that the camp has given him a welcoming community after he'd escaped an abusive home situation.

"It's a warm place for me to sleep ... without that, what would we do? Where would we be?" he asked. "All we're trying to do is prosper."

Some activists implored the council to take immediate, emergency action before it adjourns for its winter break, which runs until Jan. 13.

But the council's final meeting this month is a work session on Wednesday, and no councilors on Monday expressed interest in adding homeless issues to the agenda.

Advocates proposed that the city immediately open four emergency camping zones -- two at the Whoville site and another two near the U.S. Courthouse at East Eighth Avenue and Mill Street.

The city could do so, the advocates said, under its current "rest stop" policy, which allows up to 15 individuals to camp in tents at a city-designated site.

That would allow camping for 30 people at Broadway and Hilyard Street and another 30 at East Eighth Avenue and Mill Street, in addition to two 15-person rest stops in west Eugene already endorsed by the council.

The first of those two sites, at Roosevelt Boulevard and Garfield Street, is set to open late next week. If that site proves successful, the city is looking at opening a second site, at Chambers Street and Northwest Expressway, early in the new year. City officials on Monday said the latter site, on Chambers, might be able to double in size and accommodate 30 homeless people, not just 15.

One homeless advocate who testified Monday, Jean Stacey, said after the meeting that the council's response "was to totally dodge the issue."

"They tried to assure people that Whoville will not be disturbed and that the city has no money to do anything," Stacey said. "What we were asking for is not money but for Whoville not to be disturbed."

Stacey said advocates are keen to see the city declare the Whoville and Mill Street campsites as "rest stop" sites. "Without the council legalizing the camps, police have the authority to go in at any time and disrupt them," she said.

Mayor Kitty Piercy reiterated that the city has no intention of disbanding the illegal campsites prior to the council's post-break return in mid-January. She also reviewed the several enterprises that the city is already engaged in in its efforts to assist the homeless.

Some of those who testified Monday, such as retired minister Wayne Martin, thanked the councilors for hearing them out and working with the homeless community to find a solution for the city.

"Each of you here have had moments when you have acted very humanely," Martin said. "I'm urging you to be equally humane and not close any of the locations where homeless people are sleeping until you next meet."

Other advocates, such as Art Bowman, expressed a more disheartened tone. "Whatever you do on this issue won't be enough," Bowman said, citing issues of financial strain and inequality for people across many different income levels.

In her allotted two minutes, advocate Joanna Brook spoke only briefly before allowing more than a minute of silence to fill the room.

"What about those of us who aren't safe within four walls? What about those of us for whom a tent is our home?" she asked, holding a cardboard sign with the words "Have Mercy."

As her silence came to a close, she whispered to the councilors: "Please have mercy. Please have mercy."


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