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Poverty and Homelessness

Alternatives For Homeless Campers

quixote_village.jpg
Quixote Village

In last week’s sweep of the Bear Creek Greenway in Medford, police evicted more than two dozen homeless campers. Many lost their tents, sleeping bags or other belongings. This was the seventh greenway sweep this year.

Rather than continue this cycle of eviction and relocation, some Northwest cities are using innovative approaches to help homeless people get off the street – and save public money in the process.

Heather Everett doesn’t’ see much point in the periodic greenway sweeps.

Heather Everett: “You’re not really solving the problem. You’re just taking away their stuff and making them cold and making them relocate to some other unknown location.”

Everett chairs the Jackson County Homeless Task Force, a group that helps co-ordinate government agencies and non-profits that serve the homeless.

She understands you can’t let people live in unsanitary camps along the Greenway. But, she says …

Heather Everett: “Everybody deserves a place to sleep; It can’t be illegal to sleep.”

Since there isn’t enough affordable housing to get homeless folks off the street, Everett says local governments should look into alternatives being used elsewhere in the Northwest. For instance, the Seattle area has sanctioned encampments, where portable toilets and trash disposal are provided.

One striking feature of these encampments is that they’re managed by the residents. Jarvis Capucion used to live in one named Tent City 3.

Jarvis Capucion: “We have our own rules and regulations. We have a strict code of conduct, of sobriety and nonviolence.”

Capucion is a board member of a nonprofit self-help group of homeless and formerly homeless people known by the acronym SHARE. SHARE runs two sanctioned tent cities, plus a number of overnight shelters. Each camp is governed by a rotating council of residents and each resident is required to take part in clean up, security or other management duties.

Jarvis Capucion: “There’s a community of homeless people sort of working together to provide their own safety as opposed to being alone by yourself where there’s nobody around to watch your back.”

Capucion says having that community gives homeless people the support they need to get back on their feet.

Andrew Heben says this model of the self-managed homeless encampment challenges a commonly held belief.

Andrew Heben: “They think that if you give legal recognition to a homeless camp it’ll be lawless anarchy. But really what happens is that there’s this common interest in making sure it’s a safe and sanitary environment because the people there know that if it isn’t, it can be shut down at any given notice.”

Heben is an urban planner and author of the book “Tent City Urbanism.” He’s studied and lived in a number of encampments around the country. He also co-founded Opportunity Village in Eugene, a community of 30 tiny houses with shared kitchen and sanitary facilities.

Heben says tent cities and so-called micro-housing communities like Opportunity Village have proven that they work.

Andrew Heben: “Out here in the Pacific Northwest this model has been put into practice for over a decade, and there’s actually I don’t think any example that’s been given a chance to try this self-managed model with oversight that has failed.”

The Seattle area has six sanctioned encampments, some of which have been in operation for over 10 years. A similar encampment in Portland – Right 2 Dream Too – is seeking sanction. 

And there are micro-housing communities in Olympia and Portland, as well as Eugene.

While not without issues or controversy, these efforts are widely credited with housing people who’d otherwise be on the street, while reducing crime and saving public funds otherwise spent on law enforcement, courts and emergency medical care.

Alison Eisinger heads the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness. She says making these alternatives a reality required local officials to come to a pragmatic realization …

Alison Eisinger: “Making people’s existence illegal doesn’t change their existence and it doesn’t change their homelessness status. The only thing that works is to work with those people to have somewhere safe for them to go.”

Eisinger says that change of heart results in public policies that are not only more cost-effective, but more compassionate, as well.