As first-year students descend upon Eugene for their first year of college, they might be surprised by the unusual welcoming committee waiting for them at the end of the Ferry Street Bridge. At this location and several other places around Eugene, protestors have set up small camping villages. This is not the first time these campers have come together, and it’s not yet clear how long they will stay.
They are not trying to welcome this year’s crop of freshmen, and they don’t intend to stay in these campsites permanently. These campers have gathered to defend the right to do what University of Oregon students do every night — sleep in their beds legally.
This past August, an organization known as Safe Legally Entitled Emergency Places to Sleep began camping to protest the shortage of available legal spaces for the unhoused to sleep. The protestors began demonstrating the issue by getting unhoused persons to sleep in public spaces. A month later, multiple camps are still running in Eugene.
The group’s mission is to create safe and legal places for the unhoused to sleep and exist, to decriminalize the issue of being unhoused and to establish hygienic facilities that the unhoused can use.
“The protest is to show examples of how people live outside of the public eye,” SLEEPS organizer Jai Veda said. Veda and other protestors have spent the last three weeks camped out at the Eugene Federal Building and Courthouse property at Seventh Avenue and Pearl Street. Nearly 20 protestors are currently camping on the property after they were made to vacate Wayne Morris Free Speech Plaza.
This is the second time that SLEEPS has protested this issue by camping out. Its first protest was held in October 2012, which resulted in the creation of Opportunity Village, a pilot project that will provide temporary housing for the unhoused. While Opportunity Village is a victory for the group, the pilot project can only hold 30-40 homeless at a time, out of the some 1,400 people who are unhoused in Eugene.
Jean Stacey, one of the founders of SLEEPS, said, “The purpose was to get attention and apply political pressure. We spent the next months trying to negotiate with the city.”
This year’s protest coincided with a Eugene City Council decision that goes toward solving issues SLEEPS is protesting. On Sept. 24, the Eugene City Council proposed to make rest stops available for small groups of unhoused persons.
Jan Bohman, the community relations director for the City of Eugene, said the ordinance allows cities to open one rest stop that could house up to 15 campers. While Bohman maintains that the decision was not a direct response to the protests, Stacey sees this as a step in the right direction. The city will propose locations within the next 30 days.
While SLEEPS has succeeded in victories for the unhoused since its initial protests began, the group maintains that members will camp until demands are met. Veda says the protest in 2012 lasted 73 days. “We hope to achieve our goals sooner,” he says, but he also says they are prepared to demonstrate as long as necessary.