Homelessness reaches crisis proportions in Eugene

Business owners say failure to address homelessness is crushing downtown.

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With her Pomeranian, Lexi, perched behind the counter, Tina Scott runs Nest, which sells art, antiques, décor and gifts. She moved to Eugene in 1976 and is fully aware of the city’s long-standing reputation. “It’s a hippie town,” she says, “I get it.”

But after five years at 12th and Willamette and two at her current location at 8th and Willamette she’s at her wit’s end, with the panhandlers who lean against her glass windows and stare at her customers, and the crowds of homeless people gathering on the streets.

“It’s killing downtown. I hear from people that they don’t like to come downtown anymore because they feel intimidated. We’ve seen heroin overdoses, mentally ill people screaming at women with small children, defection, urination. And look — it’s a Saturday afternoon — where are the crowds?”

True enough, it’s a chilly February afternoon and there’s not a lot of sparkle on the streets, despite being near the Hilton Hotel and the Hult Center for the Performing Arts — which should be big draws for crowds.

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Scott keeps a range of defense mechanisms behind the counter, and she has the Red Hat street patrol on speed dial — having called them as many as five times a week. She sees as a bright spot that Eugene businesses are attempting to work together to combat the issue.

At a packed January 23 city council meeting, she was number 60 of 72 people who testified with tales of vandalism, theft and finding vomit, human waste, condoms and used drug needles. They’re urging the city to do more and do it faster.

“The businesses of Eugene are the foundation of Eugene. And we are crumbling,” says Scott.

In early March, the Eugene City Council banned dogs downtown unless the owner lives or works in the central district. Critics interpret the law as an effort to ban homeless people.

Other Oregon cities are also seeing a rise in the homeless population. In 2015 Bend counted nearly 2,100 residents without permanent housing. A new point-in-time count was conducted in late January, and while the final numbers won’t be released until later in the spring, organizers expect the number has climbed.