Could a homeless village work in Eugene?

EUGENE, Ore. - In a movement born of Occupy Eugene, the City of Eugene has narrowed down to 5 the possible locations for a homeless camp designed to help transition people off the streets and back into mainstream society.

But even as the Opportunity Village concept moves ahead, shelters and service providers are bursting at the seams with demand for help.

"Our issue is that we have seen the most dramatic increase in population and different populations within the homeless population that I've seen in the 30 years that I've worked here," said Terry McDonald, executive director of St. Vincent de Paul. "We are seeing the least amount of money for resources available to help."

St. Vincent has programs to help the homeless, like the car camping program which arranges for people to park in designated areas around the city.

The number of people they can help is limited, McDonald said. Service providers "can offer some showers, they can offer some laundry," he said, "but there is no place to go."

Over at the Eugene Mission, it's a similar story.

"We would not only see these full but typically we would have barrels and barrels of clothing," Jack Tripp of the Eugene Mission said of their clothing supply room shelves, "but we don't right now, and the reason for it is, is that we're housing over 100 more men a night than we did a year ago."

So beyond a meal or a fresh pair of clothes once in a while, there is no place for people to live and transition back into society.

That is where the idea of a self-sustained community called Opportunity Village comes into play. The vision is to have housing, utilities and bathroom facilities in a self-governed community, not just a makeshift homeless camp.

"They have a lifespan and then they just fail," McDonald said of similar efforts elsewhere. "It's largely because it requires substantial governance in order that it stays clear of the usual predatory problems that are apparent on the street: drugs, alcohol, theft and violence."

Dan Bryant, who chairs the Opportunity Village board, thinks the idea can work with the right piece of property - and the right people living in the village.

"We have seen from our past experience that when you create that kind of community that is self-governing that people who are currently without homes take responsibility for their lives, you help people," he said.

The idea was brought to the Eugene City Council in hopes they would provide city owned property upon which to build the village.

The Council agreed to look at possible land options and have narrowed it down to five:

  • 1.4 acres on Commons Drive and South Garden Way, with 433 residences within 600 feet
  • 2.6 acres also near Commons Drive and South Garden Way, with 398 homes within 600 feet
  • 3.7 acres south of I-105 within 600 feet of 824 homes
  • 2.6 acres on N. Garfield Street and Cross Street near 62 homes
  • 3.1 acres at 13th Avenue and Chambers Street near 231 homes

Neighbors in those areas have mixed feelings about a homeless village setting up shop in their backyards.

"I think that would be a great thing for the homeless people," said Tyler Herkemhoff, who lives in the Harlow neighborhood. "I mean nothing is really going on out here, this is just open land. I don't ever see anyone using it so I think that would be a good program for them to do."

"I think it wouldn't be a good place to do that because of the potential crime that it would bring," said Christina Jones, who lives in the Jefferson Westside Neighborhood.

"It's going to take time. It's a community process it takes time, takes conversation," Bryant said. "We've taken one step now to move us in the right direction."