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Eugene's Downtown Travelers Subject Of Community Forum

Rachael McDonald

Earlier this fall, Eugene Mayor Kitty Piercy wrote a letter to city staff expressing concern about the people who hang around downtown, often panhandling. They can make the neighborhood feel unwelcome to others. Recent letters to newspaper editors have cited unpleasant experiences and the distraction of seeing people sitting on sidewalks with cardboard signs, dogs, and sometimes selling their artwork or other items. This Wednesday, the city is holding a forumto discuss the issue.

On a recent weekday afternoon, a group of young people congregate outside the Starbucks on the corner of Broadway and Willamette in Eugene. They’ve got a sign or two… One says “Weed and food lift my mood”.

Olivia Raleigh says she doesn’t understand why there’s a problem with the street kids.

Raleigh: “I have been on the streets and I have also not been on the streets. I have been on both sides of it. And I never once have had an issue with any of the street kids here. I mean unless some of them are like obviously not on good drugs and are obviously not positive.”

This 21-year-old says she’s not currently homeless but comes here to see her friends. She says young people on the streets help each other out and are each other’s families. She says it’s true many travelers come to Eugene to live on the streets.

Raleigh: “That’s because Eugene is such a nice place, it’s smaller. There’s Oregon Country Fair here, there’s lots of really humble hippies here and I think that’s why a lot of traveling kids feel safe here.”

Credit Rachael McDonald
Thomas Pettis-Czar in the Barnlight in downtown Eugene.

Thomas Pettis-Czar is owner of the Barnlight in downtown Eugene. He says the presence of street people can affect business. He recounts a story of a Eugene man and his son who came to the Barnlight for lunch this summer. They sat outside. After lunch, the man complained to the manager.

Pettis-Czar: “They had witnessed a dog defecating in Kesey Square. The owner did not pick it up; then, a verbal altercation with a lot of obscene words and then a subsequent physical altercation. And the man said I will never bring my family back down here because of that.”

Pettis-Czar says the incident was heartbreaking. Especially after all the work the city, developers and businesses have done to help revitalize downtown.

Pettis-Czar: "We’ve created a wonderful community down here that is incredibly vibrant. And it's certainly worked in terms of attracting these folks down here for the first time in a long time but there's definitely still folks who just don't step foot down here because they think it's unsafe."

Pettis_Czar says he’s hopeful the upcoming meeting will generate some good ideas and bring more positive energy downtown.

Mayor Kitty Piercy says she wants the forum to be about finding ways to solve the problem.

Piercy: “This meeting is not to hear complaints. There are plenty of those and we’ve heard a lot of them. This is to look for solutions.”

Piercy says she’s heard some good ideas: One is to offer day labor to people so they can earn enough money to move on. Another is to put up a storefront or kiosk offering connections to resources in the community.

Piercy: “So I’ve sort of tried to frame this and how do we make our places downtown feel safe and pleasant to everyone. And in some cases they don’t currently and so what can we do about that as a whole community? People who live here, people who visit here. All of us.”

The kids I talked to on the street downtown say they feel safe and that they’re here to spread peace and love. But one, who calls herself Tiger, says once you’re homeless, it’s difficult to make a change.

Tiger: “It’s so easy for that to happen but it’s so hard to get out of it. Because when you go to school, think about it, you don’t have anywhere to sleep, shower, study. To be 100% to go to work or school. It’s kind of hard to get back into that being on the streets.”

Tiger says she’s looking for a job and will look into going back to school as well.

The Community forum on Downtown solutions is Wednesday December 2nd from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. at the Lane Community College Downtown Campus.

Laura Hammond with the City of Eugene says response to the forum is high and space is limited.  Hammond says people who plan to attend should RSVP by calling 541-682-5049, sending an email to EugeneDowntown@ci.eugene.or.us or using EventBrite.

Community members can also provide their input online by visiting www.eugene-or.gov/downtownsolutions.

Rachael McDonald is KLCC’s host for All Things Considered on weekday afternoons. She also is the editor of the KLCC Extra, the daily digital newspaper. Rachael has a BA in English from the University of Oregon. She started out in public radio as a newsroom volunteer at KLCC in 2000.
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