'Seeing a hungry, homeless person can be frightening'

EUGENE, Ore. - A disconnect exists between Eugene's general public and the homeless. People don't like to talk about it, but it's there, homeless advocates say.

According to Richie Weinman, former directing coordinator for Eugene's Project Homeless Connect, those who like to help the homeless usually prefer to do it from afar.

He feels they will gladly donate money toward services and food, but don't want to meet these people on the street and interact face-to-face because it scares them.

"You go to Market of Choice and people have an option to donate money toward FOOD for Lane County. It's OK for them to donate because they are removed," Weinman said. "Seeing a hungry, homeless person can be frightening. People are afraid of that."

"When I'm at a stoplight and a homeless person is holding a sign, it still makes me uncomfortable," said Bailey Ellis-Wiard, a Eugene playwright who spent three months on the streets interacting with the homeless.

The gap between Eugene's general public and the homeless community is something Weinman has seen evolve during his 25 years of city planning and development. He believes it's a major issue, given the amount of people without homes in the city.

According to Lane County's Human Services Commission, 2,140 people were counted during 2011's One Night Homeless Count. Data collected from the count is used to inform policy and funding decisions across the state.

James Ewell of New Roads Youth and Family Center in West Eugene also sees the growing disconnect between communities. He sees parts of the general public keeping their distance while providing services to New Roads. "My assumption is that they feel safer doing this, and that it fulfills their desire to give without them having to get their feet wet, so to speak," Ewell said.

But for Adam, a homeless man who declined to give his last name, it's more extreme than this. He feels there's more than a fear of "getting their feet wet" that keeps the public detached from the homeless community.

"They don't want to relate to us. I see people going past all day talking on their cell phones, pretending not to see us as they go about their lives. To me, that just shows they don't care. They have no emotion and their conscience is dead. It's easy for them to make assumptions when they're in a different situation," Adam said.

For the past five years Weinman coordinated Lane County's division of Project Homeless Connect (PHC) as a local effort to change conditions for the city's homeless. The program has recently announced that it will no longer continue its services. Weinman believes the decision was made due to lack of funding at the state and federal level, combined with the decline in local contributions.

"Community charitable giving is down. PHC took a huge amount of energy to harness the community goodwill," Weinman said. "The need to operate ongoing programs was more important."

The event was a one-day, "one-stop shop" center organized to help the homeless with basic needs such as food stamps, veterinarians and medical care. Last year, the event took place on March 17th. In the final summary report, 1,595 guests attended the event. This was the highest number recorded in the program's five-year history. The numbers were up nearly 14 percent from the previous year, with 378 service providers and businesses offering 106 categories of services.

Weinman believes PHC was one way to get the disconnected general public involved with this community at more human level. One of his goals has been to break down the stigma associated with homeless people. He's done this by inviting all types of community members to volunteer.

PHC has had elected officials and other community leaders attend and volunteer in many capacities. "For many, there were 'aha' moments as they engaged our homeless guests as neighbors and learned both their back story and discovered their challenges to securing a better life," Weinman said. "We've had politicians and city council members hobnobbing next to homeless people. They loved it. It was a chance to see that these are normal people, just like you and me."

But Weinman feels that even when a gap is temporarily bridged between communities, the disconnect is still apparent due to these restrictions in services for the homeless.

The Egan Warming Center is an example of a service built within the parameters set by the city. These parameters are specific dates and temperature levels needed "to where we'll go ahead and activate," said Doug Bales, manager of the center.

The center was built in response to the lack of shelters for homeless people when the weather turns cold. Named after Thomas Egan, a homeless man who froze to death in the streets of Eugene in 2008, the shelter stays open during the nights of Nov. 15-March 31 when the temperature drops below 30 degrees. According to Weinman, the policy of 30 degrees was established as a means to offset the costs of heating the center.

"We had a lot of city council meetings about that. 35 and 30 degrees make a lot of difference. When you are already stretched thin, that is going to be more nights the warming centers will be open and more people you will have to pay. We had to set parameters with the funding available," Weinman said.

But for those in Lane County who work around the homeless, these restrictions aren't damaging volunteers' spirits. "I look forward to winter now. I'm excited to help and to get things going again," Bales said.

Bales believes it's the policy makers working with limited funds, who have created a service with whatever resources they have been allotted. For Weinman, having to set temperature guidelines were difficult decisions no one wanted to make. But as Weinman stated, "It's an issue with no right answers. But as long as we are focusing on helping, well that's a good thing."

Bales is in his second year managing the program and says his volunteers are energetic and ready to go. "We've got about 200 volunteers and they've been calling all weekend asking what they can do to help," he said.

"The county has contributed $30,000 a year for the last several years," Bales said. "St. Vincent de Paul raises at least that much in donations and also collects clothes, resources, vans and supplies."

But the money from the county didn't come without a fight. "We're at the bottom of the list when it comes to support. We had to beg, plead and scratch just to get $30,000," Bales said.

"The leaders at St. Vincent de Paul, Terry McDonald and Charley Harvey, figure we spend $2 for every county dollar. Our host sites absorb heating bills and supplies," Bales said.

Looking ahead for the opening night of November 15th this year, Bales isn't counting on staying open. "It's been pretty warm, so we probably won't activate for a while," he said.

It's during these nights above 30 degrees, when services aren't open due to lack of funding, that members of the homeless community have to find alternative places to go.

"We go to Egan when they're open. But when they aren't we just do what we can. We grab lots of blankets and cardboard and huddle close together," said Miguel Mullin, a Springfield man who's been out on Eugene's streets for a year and a half.

Adam is another homeless man who's been out on the streets for over a year and a half, but doesn't go to the missions or other shelters in town at night because he doesn't want to associate with other homeless people.

"I'm watching out for other homeless people. I'm protecting myself from addicts and junkies that want to take what I have," Adam said.

"We get hassled by the cops all the time telling us to move on. People treat us bad too. But I'm just getting to the point where I don't care. I'll just sit down and stay wherever I feel like," Mullin said.

It's situations like this, when members of the city's homeless community are turned away that pose problems for businesses and the public in downtown Eugene.

"It makes it hard that we are open 24 hours a day. And we just got these couches in here, so it does make it more appealing for them to come in," said Hannah Hirsekorn, an employee of Voodoo Doughnuts on Broadway.

Like other coffee shops and businesses in downtown Eugene, Voodoo Doughnuts operates with a strict policy against loitering.

"They can only come in as long as they buy something. Otherwise we just tell them they need to leave. But a doughnut is only 95 cents and that makes it a lot easier for them to come in and hang out as long as they want," Hirsekorn said.

She says that for the most part there hasn't been a real problem with the homeless community, but there are times when she's had enforce the their policy. "I'm usually nice at first, but sometimes I just have to get stern and kick them out; especially if they are outside asking other customers for money. That's when it gets to be a problem," she said.

Working downtown has started to personally change Hirsekorn's level of connection with the homeless. "There are times they will come in and act almost entitled for free food. Like we owe it to them, and that makes me personally not very sympathetic." Hirsekorn said.

"When I'm out on the street and see them I'm less likely to give them anything. You can't ever tell someone's story; who's really in need and who isn't. It's unfortunate it is this way, because then they all just get lumped into the same category," she said.

According to Weinman, this is part of compartmentalizing the homeless as a whole, which he feels is easier for the public to ignore. He says part of this is a fear of becoming what you see on the street.

"It's not a pleasing thing to think about, and it scares people knowing that what they see could very well happen to them. We're in a different place altogether. But there's a fine line at where I'm at and where I could be. Any of us have that fine line. We're in our comfort zone and we don't like to think about the bad things. It's not very pleasant," Weinman said.

Adding to the notion of being scared of becoming homeless, Weinman believes the differences in priorities and modes of thinking between the homeless and general public is the biggest factor alienating the two communities.

He says this is part of the daily survival challenge of the poor, including the homeless. He believes that those with middle class values learn from a young age to plan, budget and think about the future.

"We make appointments and keep them. We set aside money for our rent and recognize the value of education because of future benefits. The people who are poor and homeless don't live in that world. They survive day-to-day, hour-to-hour," Weinman said. He feels this is part of the isolation and cultural split of homelessness and believes that when someone becomes 'homeless' they don't just lose their job, or their money, or their house. They also lose their old priorities.

According to Adam, there's no escaping the immediate, instinctual mode of thinking. He believes this involves staying warm, protected and fed. He says it's these day-to-day concerns determining whether or not he'll be able to stay alive.

He says it's a complete cultural difference the general public doesn't understand. For him, surviving on the streets requires living in the present. But even looking after his basic needs has proven to be a struggle for him.

"I have to take a bus up Highway 99 and stand in line for an hour just so I can take a shower. Then I have to search around to find public restrooms people will let me use that actually have doors on them," Adam said.

"Planning is more of a middle class value. These people are just trying to survive. It's a completely different way of operating," Weinman said. "This is a way of life for these people. They're always cold and hungry. At night you see them out walking because it's the only way they can stay warm. They can't stay still," Weinman said.

Last winter Adam got pneumonia from spending his nights outside in the cold.

"I was spitting up blood and it got real bad. I wish I would have died. That way I wouldn't have to deal with all of this anymore," he said.

Ryan Schoeck is a graduate student studying journalism at the University of Oregon. supports the Oregon NewsLab project by reviewing multimedia journalism submissions from students for possible publication.