Leadership and civility needed in homelessness debates

Tensions are running high around homelessness in Eugene, and a misguided protest at a local eatery can only make matters worse. People on both sides need to dial back the rhetoric and engage in civil dialogue before there is literal blood on the streets.

The incident took place a week ago at Elk Horn Brewery. While patrons were enjoying drinks and dinner that Saturday night, 18 homelessness activists unfurled a banner that read “Housekeys not Handcuffs” and read a manifesto over a megaphone.

The activists targeted Elk Horn Brewery because its owner, Steve Sheehan, is one of the founders of a group called “Eugene Wake Up” that advocates for a tougher response to problems associated with homeless residents — tents, trash, small crimes, etc.

Sheehan’s business has suffered more acutely than many, experiencing multiple break-ins and property destruction. He therefore has partnered with more than a half-dozen sororities near the University of Oregon to hire unarmed security patrols in the neighborhood.

Eugene City Councilor Mike Clark called the incident at Elk Horn Brewery a “really ugly event.”

“When a couple dozen people come into a restaurant, drop a banner in the middle of the place and start yelling and shouting at patrons, that’s not a protest. That’s an assault. That’s designed with intimidation in mind,” he said during last week’s council meeting. “That was a crime.”

Clark urged police, who have video of the incident, to identify the activists involved and seek charges against them.

Frustration is not isolated to a few business owners and Wake Up Eugene. People want to see concrete action to address the deteriorating quality of life. They are tired, scared and concerned for their safety. Yet the city and county seem to be accomplishing nothing as the number of homeless increases year over year. How much worse must things get before leaders take more aggressive steps both to reduce crime and the deterioration of public spaces?

Activists are right that the city, county, state and nation must invest more public resources in sheltering vulnerable people living on the streets. They veer into folly when they argue that a business owner who has suffered multiple break-ins shouldn’t partner with neighbors to hire security patrols. Even if money for shelters materializes magically tomorrow, it would take time to open them. Should the business owners help pay for beds while his business gets broken into yet again? Should a sorority divert funds to a shelter and simply let members risk assault on increasingly sketchy streets?

Local government should address such public safety concerns, but it has not. What other option do residents and business owners have but to band together in the face of lawlessness?

Homelessness is a multi-faceted problem, and no one should assume that all homeless people are the same. Each person has a unique story. There are those who have fallen on hard times and desperately struggle to get back on their feet. But there are also those who opt out of society in favor of drugs and crime.

In fairness to the city and county, some work is being done, but too much of it is behind the scenes and without demonstrable, visible improvement.

The danger of escalation is all too real. Comments on Eugene Wake Up’s Facebook page contain plenty of heated rhetoric. But it’s one thing to spout off in an online forum. It’s something else entirely to show up at a business and cause a disruption because you disagree with the owner.

People have the right to free speech and the right to assemble. If we are to make progress on homelessness, though, people must choose to exercise those rights responsibly. Councilor Clark put it well when he said, “This is a community where we all don’t agree, but we have to be able to talk to one another civilly when we don’t.”

After Clark's remarks, Mayor Lucy Vinis said, “Thank you, well said. I think I agree that we do not want to see this kind of incident happen in our community, that people are intimidated and trespassed and harassed.”

She thinks she agrees that intimidation and harassment are problematic? If that’s what passes for strong leadership in Eugene, it’s little wonder that the city appears to be floundering on homelessness and people on both sides are taking matters into their own hands.