Managing Homelessness in Eugene’s Jefferson Westside Neighbors
Take a walk through Eugene’s Jefferson Westside Neighbors and you’ll probably see some beautiful parks, clean streets and friendly faces. Old-fashioned eateries, eclectic shops and whacky homes would all likely catch your eye. You might also see the faces of one those suffering from one of Eugene’s most concerning social epidemics: homelessness.
“The data that has been compiled tells us there are roughly 2,500 people sleeping either on the streets or in temporary shelters every night in Lane County,” said Anne Williams, housing programs manager at St. Vincent de Paul, Lane County’s largest nonprofit human services organization. “We provided assistance of some kind to over 80,000 people last year.”
With the latest census of Lane County coming in at 350,000 people, last year roughly 25% of Lane County residents utilized the services of St. Vincent de Paul alone. Given the economic circumstances today, the stress on the homeless is that much greater and finding a way out can seem hopeless.
“I’d like to turn things around but with how hard everyone is already struggling, imagine what it’s like to be in my shoes,” said Jasper Wilson, a homeless resident of the JWN who has been displaced since 2008. “If a college degree can’t get you a job today I don’t know what chance I have.”
Yet despite any inherent tension between homeowners and the homeless in the JWN, things go on peacefully here with few problems.
“I spend most of my time here (JWN), I like the area. There is respect between the homeowners and the homeless here, everyone knows that people living on the streets here aren’t looking to cause any problems like in some other areas of Eugene,” said Wilson.
While vagrancy in Eugene certainly isn’t limited to the Jefferson Westside Neighbors, it was the main, and sometimes, only issue residents and employees of the JWN had to gripe about. Though homelessness seems to be an issue that people take notice of, most don’t find it to be an intrusion into their days. Rather, homeowners and the homeless have found a seamless way to coexist.
“We’re in a pretty good location here, to be honest we don’t have that many problems relatively,” said Aaron Sullivan, a manager at the JWN’s Sweet Life Café. “Occasionally we’ll get homeless loitering either inside or outside of the shop but usually they’ll leave without any problems if we ask them to.”
Others corroborate this feeling in the community, including Cindi Bletscher, an administrator with the Eugene First Church of the Nazarene.
“I think overall Eugene has been effective in facilitating a coexistence between homeowners and homeless. There are multiple shelters available for people to stay in for little or no money and some of the shelters allow work around the property as payment so most people should be able to find a dry place if they’re willing to put in a little work,” said Bletscher.
However, Bletscher is quick to point out that things weren’t always so peaceful in her experiences with the homeless.
“We had a large problem with the homeless. They line up on the walkway or on the steps, we had to put an iron gate in to keep them out. We don’t mind if they sleep but they use the property as a bathroom and also leave needles behind where children are present,” said Bletscher.
Unfortunately drug and alcohol abuse stereotypically go hand-in-hand with homelessness, an aspect that has proven to be the case in some instances here in the Jefferson Westside Neighbors. To help combat this, the White Bird Clinic was formed.
Over 40 years old, the White Bird clinic is “a collective environment organized to enable people to gain control of their social, emotional and physical well-being through direct service, education and community.” (whitebirdclinic.org). Offering different medical, dental and psychological services, the White Bird responds to over 85,000 service requests each year.
The White Bird, along with other community resources, has proven to be a valuable aid to people like Gerald “Jerry” Hudson.
“I stay at the Mission like I said, I’ve also received various treatments from White Bird Centers around town,” said Hudson, who has been homeless in Eugene for the last six years. “I lived in Los Angeles for fifteen years and I was treated like crap most of the time. At least in Eugene people are mostly friendly and the city offers food and shelters.”
Aside from shelter and medical care, access to food is the major issue facing many of Lane County’s homeless. This concern has also been met with action from St. Vinnie’s with the introduction of the Atkinson food room, a food bank with reserves for those in need.
“Last year we provided Lane County families with over 12,000 food boxes,” said Williams. “Obviously there is still a need but we’re always doing what we can to boost our reserves and help out more people.”
All and all, Eugene has and continues to do a great job facilitating the recovery of distressed and displaced families. The feedback from those who have received assistance will reaffirm this. Just ask Jasper in the JWN.
“Savior, that’s the word that comes to mind,” said Wilson. “Without the support of this community, there’d be no hope for guys like me.”
Getting to know St. Vincent de Paul
As Lane County’s largest nonprofit human services organization, St. Vincent de Paul is a familiar name to many in the area who have required help of some kind over the years. SVDP has nine discounted retail stores, four attended collection trailers and over a thousand housing units in the Eugene/Springfield area serving nearly 85,000 people on average each year since being founded in 1954.
“We provide assistance with finances, health, clothing and shelter among other things. We operate the Lindholm Service Station where homeless people or people in transitional stages of life can stay, as well as the Egan Warming Center where people can go in the winter for a heated space,” said Anne Williams, housing programs manager with St. Vincent. “We also offer options to help people get back on their feet such as the Job Search Center and the Second Chance Rehabilitation Center. “
The organization is not affiliated with the national St. Vincent de Paul Organization, but they are named after the same Catholic priest. Lane County’s St. Vincent considers itself a “lay” organization, meaning they are affiliated with the Catholic Church but they are not a part of it, and they serve people of all faiths.
“St. Vincent has been a savior for me and my family,” said Jasper Wilson, a father of two from Eugene who, because of St. Vincent, has been able to provide shelter and food for his wife and kids. “It’s amazing how far I’ve come with the help of this place. I like to stop by and say thank you to everyone whenever I’m in the neighborhood.”
Wilson’s story is another successful turn-around that St. Vincent de Paul was able to help facilitate.
“People like Jasper are the reason we’re here,” said Williams. “When someone is ready to make positive choices for themselves and their family, we’re always here to help.”
Just What is the White Bird Exactly?
Integrated into the West University district of Eugene, the three White Bird Clinic buildings are a mystery to most. Often with a crowd of less-fortunate individuals outside on the property, some may jump to negative conclusions about the work that the clinics do for the community. However, a deeper look into the services offered and the faces affiliated with the White Bird yields a much more positive outlook towards their work.
“It all started with Chuck (Gerard) in the early 1970’s,” recalls Dave Norman, homeless health care coordinator for the White Bird Clinic building on 14th and Mill. “There were a lot of displaced individuals in our community after the 1960’s and Chuck wanted a place where they could get the care they needed regardless of their financial situation.”
Originally formed as the White Bird Socio-Medical Aid Station, the White Bird has expanded from one building providing basic services to three buildings offering eight different forms of aid including drug/alcohol treatment, crisis counseling, medical care, and the country’s only 9-11 dispatched community service response vehicle: the CAHOOTS van service.
In addition to serving the campus and downtown communities, the White Bird Clinic also travels to the Oregon Country Fair and serves as the Medical Center for the entire gathering, which is considered the fifth-largest city in Oregon when in season. Staff for this event includes an E.R. doctor at all times as well as registered nurses and paramedics.
“We’ve really evolved over the years with the support of the community,” said Norman. “We began as a group of concerned citizens volunteering our time and now we’re staffing doctors, it’s hard to believe sometimes.”
Before placing any judgment on the White Bird, pay mind to the good that the center has accomplished, it’s plain to see to those willing to look.
When Life Throws you a Curve ball…
Fifteen years ago, Russell Fitzpatrick was another normal guy. He was fresh out of the Marine Corps, a husband and a father of two young girls. He struggled with post-military employment, forcing him to work two full-time jobs at a convenience store and a warehouse position. He wanted to do everything in his power to provide for his family, but the financial and emotional stress of always being away from the house took its toll on Fitzpatrick and he turned to alcohol to cope.
“Always working and still being paycheck to paycheck is hell on a family,” said Fitzpatrick. “When there is no end in sight it’s hard to know if you’re really helping your family by not being there.”
Stress eventually became an obstacle in Fitzpatrick’s marriage. Feeling like a failure, Fitzpatrick began making the bars a routine stop on his way home to grab a few cheap drinks. On one night in 1996, Fitzpatrick had one too many before his drive home and inadvertently changed his life forever.
“I totaled the car into the side of the road, I don’t have any recollection of the crash,” said Fitzpatrick. “I didn’t hit anyone else and I was the only one in the car, but the costs to buy a new car and take care of my DUI were the last things we needed.”
Following this catastrophic event, Fitzpatrick’s wife took his daughters and left. Aside from a few letters, he hasn’t spoken to them since.
“It’s just me and Baxter (his dog) now, it’s been really tough. Feeling like you threw a good thing away is a haunting feeling that is hard to deal with,” said Fitzpatrick.
Fitzpatrick has spent the last two years of his life living on the streets of Eugene, mostly in the Jefferson Westside Neighbors. He has been sober for five months and is working to re-establish credit and find employment.
“I’m thankful for the people at the White Bird Clinic, they’re helped me through some really rough nights,” said Fitzpatrick. “I don’t want to know where I’d be if it weren’t for them.”
Fitzpatrick isn’t sure where his daughters are now but he still thinks about them everyday and hopes to one day reconnect with them.
“They’re what keep me going. My life doesn’t mean much but if I can see them again it will all be worth it.”
A Shopping Trip to St. Vinnie’s
Located right off of the train tracks near downtown Eugene, St. Vinnie’s Broadway retail location is a treasure chest of affordable items. Doubling as a donation center, this location is one of the largest such outlets in Eugene.
“It really isn’t all that much different than any other store, well except the prices are much lower of course,” said two-year employee Dave Sanderman. “With our huge selection, generally people don’t have too much trouble finding something useful here.”
With everything from home decor to sports equipment, the St. Vincent de Paul retail locations provide a lower-cost alternative to department stores for families going through tough times. But that doesn’t mean only those in need can or do shop here.
“We get a pretty good mix of people here,” said Pete Hamils, a 10-month employee of the St. Vinnie’s Broadway retail store. “We’re here for anyone who wants to come in and check us out or donate.”
Though a bit further from campus, the Broadway St. Vinnie’s location does see their share of college students.
“We’re a great resource for college kids who aren’t from the area and will likely leave Eugene after graduation,” said Sanderman. “We see a lot of students come in to furnish their apartments or buy cheaper appliances, as well as students coming to donate.”
St. Vincent de Paul’s nine retail locations in Lane County are just another example of the exceptional resources offered to the less fortunate the area. And, as always with St. Vinnie’s, it’s service with a smile.
Homelessness in the JWN: a Photo Collection
By Kayne Carpenter