As more and more people fall prey to overwhelming debt, foreclosures, layoffs, and an inaccessible health care system, people in our community are falling through the gigantic holes in our safety nets. Many end up unhoused, living in cars, couchsurfing, or on the streets.
Below is a story out of Douglas County where business interests sought to scapegoat the unhoused, blaming them for fewer dollars being spent on main street, and push them out with the help of the city and the police with an ordinance that would unconstitutionally ban anyone who appears to be low-income out of downtown – out of sight, out of mind. A crew of rural ROPers exposed the push head-on for what it is, shifted the conversation to developing real community solutions, and are winning!
Meet and strategize with the inspiring Douglas County crew at the Rural Caucus & Strategy Session on Saturday, June 8th! One of the strategy sessions folks can opt into at the Caucus this year is Economic Refugees: debt, corporate dominance, and the ongoing recession are forcing people out of their homes, schools, and communities. What are the innovative strategies we need to keep our communities afloat? Register for the Caucus now online!
For the last 77 consecutive weeks, Occupy Roseburg has held their Feed the Burg potluck where community members come together around food, housed and unhoused alike. Each week they feed up to 120 people who have become a community.
After being so well connected to the unhoused community for so many weeks, it was natural that Occupy Roseburg found allies at the local Homeless Coalition. The Homeless Coalition let Occupy Roseburg folks know that the Downtown Business Association has been plotting with the city and police department to impose a downtown “transient-free zone” that they had recently renamed a “safety zone”, which would mean that if you appear to be unhoused, you can be banned from the downtown area.
Last month, Occupy Roseburg attended a Roseburg City Council meeting to expose the policy for what it was, an exclusion zone. These exclusion zones are cropping up all over the state — Eugene, Ashland, etc. — and were being fought by their communities based on Constitutional grounds. How can you ban people based on their housing status or income level?
At the City Council meeting, Occupy Roseburg’s testimony caught everyone off guard, and supporters of the exclusion zone had no planned response.
The media covered their remarks and reported using their carefully chosen “exclusion zone” language — success!Coverage included a fantastic front-page article in the News Review titled: “EXCLUSION ZONE? While merchants push to keep riff raff off downtown streets, homeless advocates warn a ‘safety zone’ would criminalize poverty”. The article goes on to quote organizing ally Ian Smith with the Homeless Coalition as saying,
“Public spaces should ideally serve more functions than commerce… You could strip it of certain buzz words like ‘transient-free zone,’ but simply changing the words doesn’t mean it’s not an anti-homeless ordinance. They don’t say, ‘Homeless people can’t sleep under the bridge.’ They say, ‘People can’t sleep under the bridge.’ In a naive sense, we could say it applies evenly to all people, but I’ve never been ticketed for that because I have other options.”
The following day, Occupy Roseburg took the streets and planned to occupy the Downtown Business Association’s office with a demand that they immediately drop the exclusion zone, but found the office closed and empty. They opted to instead canvass the downtown businesses. They found that local business owners, in no small part because of the Downtown Business Association, had chosen the unhoused to scapegoat for the lack of money being spent in downtown.
The Homeless Coalition invited the Downtown Business Association out to their regular meeting to discuss the planned exclusion zone. The Downtown Business Association even suggested a downtown business tax to install public restrooms and other resources downtown. With the lines of communication open with the city, and the Downtown Business Association scrambling to recover from the bad press with a new openness to shared solutions, it was proposed that Occupy Roseburg, and the larger community, suggest alternatives to a downtown exclusion zone.
A crew of folks met to build the proposal to the city and, most importantly, figure out the next steps and plans to keep community-centered solutions at the forefront of the conversation. The proposal emphasized basic needs like public restrooms, pubic water fountains, all the way up to a legalized campground similar to the camps established in Portland and Eugene, and a public day shelter with case workers and access to basic physical and mental healthcare.
The Downtown Business Association has painted downtown Roseburg as a scary place rife with violence and undesirable people. The Downtown Business Association offered to take anyone on a walk around downtown at 7AM to show them “the real downtown” — an offer Occupy Roseburg took them up on. Occupy Roseburg went on this walk with the Downtown Business Association a couple weeks ago, and downtown was as quiet as can be. Occupy Roseburg smartly anticipated running into some unhoused folks and planned to model how to engage with them in a clear, compassionate, and real way about what they need in order to be off of the downtown Roseburg streets.
Occupy Roseburg then presented their proposal, as requested, to the Downtown Business Association. They found common ground and they are working on next steps together, including a public forum on the possibility of starting a legal campground. They plan to invite service recipients, folks who want to be service recipients, the organizers of Dignity & Opportunity Villages in Portland and Eugene, and local service providers to discuss community solutions. The invitation reads,
“The purpose of this gathering is to present the need for a camping area for the homeless, to be set up on an accessible piece of land — preferably owned by the City of Roseburg. It is our intention that this be a self-governing project once it is established similar to Dignity and Opportunity Villages in Portland and Eugene respectively. Any suggestions you may make will be appreciated.”
Invitations to the public forum include: Mercy Hospital, Ford Foundation, Doug Co. Mental Health, ADAPT, every church in town, law enforcement, UCAN of Douglas and Josephine Counties, the Homeless Coalition, the Mission, City Council members, County Supervisors, the Community Kitchen, the Downtown Business Assoc., the VA and the Health Department, and Feed the Burg attendees.
As for the exclusion zone, it appears to be buried. Once the idea was in the public eye, the Downtown Business Association could not publicly defend their own idea because they know it is so unpopular. Rumor is that City Council and law enforcement aren’t all that impressed with the idea either.
Occupy Roseburg is going to keep an eye on the situation, but until then they are going to move forward with real solutions that will help the most vulnerable in Douglas County.