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Eugene Businesses Unite To Address Issues With 'Lawless' Transients

Stephen Sheehan/Brian Bull
Elk Horn Brewery/KLCC

Ongoing vandalism and harassment against area shops and restaurants are straining relationships between businesses and the homeless community. As KLCC’s Brian Bull reports, a new group of business owners is imploring officials to confront an issue they say only keeps getting worse.

The Elk Horn Brewery has contended with litter, theft, and human waste since it opened five years ago. But owner Stephen Sheehan says this year has been the worst. Reportedly hearing voices, a homeless woman vandalized his place twice within a month recently, including the Thai restaurant next door.

“She broke our windows, our front door, and Manola’s.  Three weeks after that time she she tried to light a Molotov cocktail, she broke out 12 windows, the doors. $8000 worth of damage.”

Logo for Eugene Wake Up.

Angry and frustrated, Sheehan formed a coalition called Eugene Wake Up. Its membership includes more than a hundred other business owners tired of repeat vandalism and disruptive behavior, often from transients. 

“We just can’t do this anymore. It’s killing us as a community, it’s killing us as a business community," says Sheehan.

"Something has to be done immediately, and that’s the purpose for our group.”

Response has been mixed.  When Sheehan attended a City Council meeting a couple weeks ago, he was confronted and heckled by other locals.

“'Cause they knew I started Eugene Wake Up.  Cursing me, calling me names, saying I was a capitalist bastard.”

Sheehan and the group have since taken their issues directly to city leaders.  Some members fear that officials prioritize homeless concerns over local businesses, and not holding criminal behavior more accountable.

Accountability and enforcement are actions many relegate to the Eugene Police Department.  Chief Chris Skinner says it’s important business owners know that criminal behavior is priority for his force.

“It’s not illegal to loiter downtown, it’s not illegal to exist downtown. It’s illegal to be downtown and engage in criminal behavior,” he says.

Credit Brian Bull / KLCC
EPD Chief Chris Skinner (left) and Eugene Mayor Lucy Vinis (right) at KLCC studios, discussing Eugene Wake Up, downtown policing, and homelessness.

Skinner says the downtown is heavily policed, which in itself can help deter crime.  And a payroll tax that goes into effect next year will fund 40 more officers. At the same time, he wants locals to know that also means more EPD investigations and increased presence of police in neighborhoods, to build good community relations.

“I can’t reiterate enough that your police department is an active and engaged member of this community that wants to help solve this problem, but that’s not where this problem gets solely solved.”

Credit Brian Bull / KLCC
Erin Gilfillan, owner of Friendly Street Market. Her store was targeted repeatedly by a homeless man ousted for shoplifting.

Skinner says he supports Eugene Wake Up’s proactive, solutions-based approach, as do others.

At Friendly Street Market in the South Hills, tension has eased after a serial vandal was recently apprehended after breaking their front door three times. Owner Erin Gilfillan says groups like Eugene Wake Up are important.

“Over a number of years, we’ve had issues with people sleeping here, going to the bathroom here, we found needles around," she says. 

"There has to be a solution reached. I think it’s just going to get worse and worse and worse, until there’s some kind of breaking point.”

Credit Brian Bull / KLCC
Carts, tents, and other items left by transients cover a median pass on Eugene's 7th Avenue. Many business owners and residents say not everyone picks up after themselves, which can mean fecal waste, used hypodermic needles, or garbage.

Many business owners say they’re exasperated by chronic vandalism and drug use around their establishments. But they also feel targeted by some community members if they complain about criminal acts by transients…as if they’re condemning all homeless for the actions of a few. 

“When they first came out, I did feel that way," says Arwen Mass-Despain.  "And I have interacted with members of Eugene Wake Up members, and I have a different view now.”

Credit Brian Bull / KLCC
Arwen Maas-DeSpain, Executive Director of Carry It Forward.

Maas-DeSpain is Executive Director of Carry It Forward, a homelessness support group in Eugene. She says some business owners concern her, but most are able to differentiate between homelessness and lawlessness. 

“Businesses and organizations like mine can be collaborating to create more spaces for homeless people to live, and have support services while also providing the business with some kind of on-site security or cleanup efforts, those could be immediate collaborations.”

Many other solutions are being discussed with the Mayor’s Office.  Lucy Vinis says she’s talked to Eugene Wake Up members, and is open to ideas. These include increased property oversight and management, and neighborhood watch programs for retail areas.

“I do think it would be interesting for some of them to think about whether they wanted to host a network of car campers, not just one at a time," Mayor Vinis tells KLCC.  "They’re very solutions-oriented, prepared to make proposals to council, prepared to step up.

"I’m happy to entertain whatever other thoughts they have.”

Credit Brian Bull / KLCC
A homeless encampment outside Overhead Doors in late November 2019.

Meanwhile, more long-term plans like expanding public safety, and building more affordable housing continue, through a 10-point plan the City of Eugene and Lane County began implementing this year.

Outside the Overhead Door Company of Eugene-Springfield, president Paul Burrell says he too wants solutions, but is anxious.

“What we fear is, is that by the time the long-term plans are in effect, we’ll have more population, more issues, and it’s going to be even harder to control.”

Credit Brian Bull / KLCC
Paul Burrell, company president of Overhead Door Company of Eugene-Springfield.

Burrell stares at a row of homeless tents and carts that obscure his road-side sign. Staff and customers have dealt with transients entering their offices and yelling at them, or leaving trash and waste.  While Burrell’s patience is running short, he still holds out hope…and compassion.

“We do support the people who do want to get help," he says. 

"We think there is a big need for behavioral health, mental health funding. We just don’t have the resources to help the people who are trying to help themselves, and get work, and be healthy, versus the people who are consistently not wanting the help...just being lawless individuals.”

Some members of Eugene Wake Up say they are reviewing their options, though, in a city that ranks first nationally for homelessness. If things don’t improve, they may move to other cities, or back political candidates who promise change.  

Copyright 2019, KLCC.

Brian Bull joined the KLCC News Team in June 2016. In his 25+ years as a public media journalist, he's worked at NPR, Twin Cities Public Television, South Dakota Public Broadcasting, Wisconsin Public Radio, and ideastream in Cleveland. His reporting has netted dozens of accolades, including four national Edward R. Murrow Awards (22 regional), the Ohio Associated Press' Best Reporter Award, Best Radio Reporter from the Native American Journalists Association, and the PRNDI/NEFE Award for Excellence in Consumer Finance Reporting.
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