Ending homelessness requires more than camp.
I am concerned about potential changes to the services provided to Eugene's homeless population.
While the violence that broke out in the local Occupy Eugene encampment last December was unfortunate, it did bring new attention to the needs of people who have to call the streets their home. In response, Mayor Kitty Piercy appointed a committee to develop recommendations for meeting the needs of homeless people. I am thrilled that in hard economic times, human rights issues such as homelessness are still at the top of our local government's priority list.
The committee's recommendations will be presented to the Eugene City Council today. Many of the recommendations, including expanding existing services, seem sound - but creating an Occupy Eugene-like camp for the homeless would be unwise.
While the idea of creating a homeless community that would provide a variety of services is novel and exciting, I do not believe it is the most effective way to alleviate homelessness. A homeless encampment might provide food, showers and makeshift shelter, but it does little to move toward the ultimate goal of permanent housing. Little if any research backs the idea that a homeless encampment effectively helps to end homelessness.
Some supporters of a homeless community say that the stress of being homeless often results in violent behavior. By having a designated location for the homeless, volunteers or employees could maintain safety at a single site, thereby reducing multiple isolated incidents of violence throughout Eugene.
While I fully support programs that reduce violence, I think our focus should be on providing housing, which may eliminate the sources of stress that cause people to resort to violence. Just focusing on violence reduction is treating a symptom, not the underlying problem.
Lastly, a homeless camp would further isolate this already excluded population from the larger community. If our goal is to help people move out of homelessness and become integrated members of society, a homeless encampment would not help.
Over the past six months, I have been a social work intern for ShelterCare, the local nonprofit agency that provides a wide range of services to people who are homeless, have severe and persistent mental illnesses, or have acquired brain injuries. In my time with ShelterCare it has become clear to me that homelessness is complex. Homeless people often have problems in addition to the lack of a permanent address. These underlying issues prevent them from maintaining stable housing.
The vast majority of homeless clients at ShelterCare have been through trauma such as physical, sexual or emotional violence, and these experiences can take a toll on people's mental health or their ability to meet basic needs for housing, health and nutrition. ShelterCare does a phenomenal job of addressing this idea by trying to find and fix the underlying causes of homelessness - whether it is unresolved trauma, an untreated mental illness or a lack of job skills.
Furthermore, ShelterCare's skilled employees use interventions that have been tested and proven effective through extensive research. The agency's nearly continuous expansion since the 1970s is a testament to its successful work with homeless people.
Other agencies in Eugene also offer excellent services. St. Vincent de Paul provides services such as the Egan Warming Center, the Eugene Service Station, the First Place Family Center and the Overnight Parking Program. The Eugene Mission offers beds and meals to those in need. Agencies such as Looking Glass provide help for homeless youth. In short, there are already many well-established programs and agencies in Eugene that serve the homeless.
The Eugene City Council will discuss recommendations made by Mayor Piercy's committee today. Rather than funding a new homeless encampment that would have to be built from the ground up, it would be more effective to direct our scarce resources to established programs and agencies that have a track record of success. These programs have been working with the homeless population for many years and know what works and what doesn't. Providing funding to expand their services could allow them to reach the many people in Eugene that are still in need of housing.
In these tough times when money is sparse and the need is high, it is important that we spend money in a way that maximizes its benefits.
Sarah Stauffer of Eugene is working toward a master's degree in social work through the University of Southern California School of Social Work's Virtual Academic Center.