Gaining perspective on the Homeless Campers in Eugene

Not in My Back Yard (NIMBY)

By Bridget Reilly

             For the remainder of June the debate raged downtown as to what should be cone with “those homeless campers” in the industrial zones.  There were more meetings in City Hall, which were attended by different combinations of the campers at different ties, who all put their 2 cents in one way or other.

             We know from experience what could happed if we didn’t speak our minds to the city government.  The temporary relaxation of the camping ban had been but a small step forward, and it could be followed by several backward steps if we weren’t careful now.  There was clearly a NIMBY backlash going on in which too many business owners were determined to drive us out of the industrial areas, and preferably out of town altogether.  They were continuing to typecast us as irresponsible lowlifes who were sponging off the system, no matter what we said.  They kept saying how afraid they were to us, seeming to have no conception of the endless fear we lived in because of their attitudes. 

             Actually my partner John and I would have been quite happy to “get out of Eugene” if we could afford someplace to lie legally.  But in lieu of this, John was fond of making frequent retreats to the BLM (Bureau of Land Management) areas southwest of town.  There was also a time limit on how long people could camp there, but it wasn’t too heavily enforced.  John had several campsites that he’d rotate around; if he ever got chased out of one, he always had another to move to.  One sheriff patrolled the entire area regularly, and close tabs were not kept on how long campers remained in one place or how frequently they returned.  As long as campers ere mobile and didn’t trash the campsite or otherwise call undue attention to themselves, there was no trouble.

             After John had given his presentation at the business association meeting, there were no further obligations keeping either of us in own for a while, and he was itching to go to the woods and get away from all the city madness.  I was quite happy to take a break from it myself, so I hastily packed a few essential items into his Toyota Chinook motor home as we prepared to take off for at least a couple of day.  My camper would sit in the cul-de-sac where our neighbors had agreed to keep an eye on it while we were gone.

             The little Chinook was nimble enough that it could negotiate the rough, gravelly roads in the wooded area with relative east.  We pulled into a campsite and began to unload, then build a fire.

             It was glorious being out here.  I could appreciate what John said about being able to hear the birds singing from a mile away.  This wouldn’t be such a bad place to make a new temporary home, so when he started talking about bringing my camper up here also, its sounded like a fine idea:  to have all the comforts of “home” that it provided in this quiet wooded setting.

             After a day or two we decided to check back in town, just to see how things were going at the other camp.  We knew something was up when we saw a police car in the 3rd cul-de-sac.  This cop, it turned out, had already visited the other two cul-de-sacs and had told everybody they’d have to move in 24 hours.  The cop said no, but that he was going into his two-day-off period, during which he would study the anti-camping ordinance, because he didn’t know the specifics of how far people should move and such.  John asked if he would also look at the U.S. Constitution, to which he relied, “I don’t give a damn about the Constitution.  My job is to enforce the city ordinance.”  I pointed out to him that if the ordinance doesn’t agree with the Constitution, then it’s an unconstitutional law.  He said he understood that, but it was still his job to enforce the city ordinance.

             When we reported his conversation to the other campers, they were rather shacked at the part about the Constitution.  It certainly did not bode well that a cop would say such a thing.

             And something about that little exchange had pushed John’s stress buttons to the max.  He recalled the statement about “dead bodies I the street’ made by the businessman who seemed to think he was above the law, and it was quite conceivable that some of those business people might turn vigilante and pull a midnight hit t the camp….            When he voiced this thought to the others, they were doubtful at first, saying, “Come on –you don’t think they would really…” But the more he fleshed out his mental picture, the more alarmed they became.  After all, we were relatively isolated and unprotected out here, with little activity going on at night, and it seemed that these cops who “didn’t give a damn about the “Constitution” were much more interested in harassing us than in protecting us from crime.  With the help of a little bribe they could be persuaded to look the other way, or arrange to be in some other part of town at the time of the hit.

             Now John was fully ready to put into action our exit plan of taking both of our campers out in the woods so at least we would be out of harm’s way should the worst come to pass.  He would first drive my camper up there, then bicycle back to town and get his.  I thought that now was as good a time as any to begin this next phase of our shared life, to nurture our new love away from all the city insanity.

             My camper didn’t have working taillights, nor did I have any insurance, but the truck was in good enough condition to make the trek to the woods, after which it would not have to be driven any great distances for a while.  And in the present circumstances, the risk of keeping it here seemed greater than that of driving it out of town.  After all, that was what the NIMBY’s were trying to get all of us to do.

             So once I had made my camper ready, the neighbors made their farewells and we were off on our new adventure.

             During the time that we absented ourselves from town, the wave of NIMBY hysteria continued to be felt; the pendulum of police sentiment would swing yet further to the right before swinging back the other way.  There were newspaper accounts in which the isolated unruly acts of a few drug-crazed campers were reported in a way that implicated all of us, including the actual murder of one homeless man by another (not in our camp, and not anyone we knew).  And there was one violent fight in the 2nd cul-de-sac, incited by outsiders who were wisely suspected of being plants.

             So John’s premonitions had been partially correct, but no across-the-board massacre ever took place.  There were also meetings at City Hall, which he wanted no part of, feeling that he had done his share and the other campers could have their turn to speak their minds, which they did.  The industrial zone camping provision was extended for another three months, during which the City Council would have to come up with some “final solution.”

             But for now it was better for our mental health to keep a distance from all o of this, tending to our personal lives, practicing at domestic cohabitation against the wooded backdrop until we could find a more permanent home in the country.  We still made daily runs, which included water fetching, food shopping and letter mailing, but chose to do these in the nearby towns of crow and Veneta unless we had other business that necessitated driving into Eugene.

             In the Crow Market was a table that always had the current issue of the Eugene Register-Guard on it, for customers to read at their leisure while sipping coffee, and this was we were kept posted on the camping situation whether we checked back in town or not.  It was different reading about our friends in Eugene from this comfortable vantage point as if we were laid backcountry folk who rarely set foot in the “big city”.

 Copyright Homeless Grapevine Issue 39 December, 1999 – January, 2000