Throughout the 1930’s, Hoovervilles dotted the landscape of the Willamette Valley, just as they did throughout most of this country. The Great Depression sparked a wave of homelessness throughout the United States, a wave that triggered mass migrations and the proliferation of shantytowns that popped up everywhere from Central Park in New York City to a nine-acre settlement in Seattle on the mudflats of Puget Sound. Hoovervilles were generally tolerated throughout the Depression until the advent of WWII, when an economic resurgence triggered the eradication of the shantytowns. With the demise of the Hoovervilles, homelessness left the public spotlight but it never truly went away, hovering out of sight until the recession of the 1980’s fueled a resurgence of the visibly homeless across America.
The historic parallels between the Great Depression and the Great Recession are rather illuminating in terms of understanding the patterns, attitudes, and social tendencies that are at the foundation of modern homelessness. In viewing and analyzing present-day homelessness through the lens of the Depression, notable patterns emerge as do notable differences. The stereotypes and xenophobic attitudes aimed towards poor “migrants” in the 1930’s remains mostly unchanged to this day, especially in the current attitudes of many in urban areas who are irrationally concerned about homeless migration to their towns and cities. But while the New Deal and WWII lifted many of the Depression-era poor out of their current situation, current economic and policy trends almost guarantee that poverty and homelessness in America will continue to grow. And while the Hooverville phenomenon was accepted during the Depression years out of necessity, modern-day homeless camping is not met with anywhere near the kind of understanding and tolerance that was demonstrated by municipalities in the 1930’s. Nowadays, homeless camps are seldom tolerated by either citizens or government, and often meet a cruel fate via a bulldozer and/or police vehicles. Those who were dubbed “migrants” eighty years ago are more accurately described as “refugees” in the present. They are not allowed to have their Hoovervilles. They are a people with no place to call their own.
I have spent a lot of time between these two worlds of past and present, gathering information from one in order to better understand, define, and explain the other. These connections are crucial as a basis for functioning within my primary role, one that is defined by most as “activist” but in practice is more akin to a cross between a historian, a cultural translator, and a public advocate. This role places me in the space between two other worlds, the world of the housed and the world of the unhoused. Two worlds that live beside one another, and yet consist of two starkly distinctly cultures that seldom communicate or cross-pollinate with each other. In this role, I often feel like an ambassador or diplomat between two hostile nations, translating each side to the other, working between two cultures, brokering truces and fostering relationships, trying to stress their similarities and explain their differences to each other.
In navigating back and forth between the terrains of these two cultures, I inevitably end up in a wide variety of situations. Often, I find myself in settings around public policy, where I become an important voice for those who often end up on the wrong side of “quality-of-life” and “livability” measures. Other times my role is on the streets, acting as an on-call liaison between the police and the homeless, with the aim of diffusing tense situations and improving communication between the two groups. And sometimes the work requires an appeal to the public, with a need to raise awareness that often takes the form of direct action and civil disobedience. In such circumstances, I have sometimes found myself at the center of controversy, and as the public face with one foot in each world, I am often confronted with harsh questions, demands and expectations from both sides. It requires a constant maneuvering through minefields of both praise and condemnation while never forgetting to keep a clear focus on the truth.
Over the past two months, a spontaneous series of protests initiated by Eugene’s homeless community have become a focal point of controversy, further polarizing a community that has been split on the issue of homelessness for over thirty years. The protests, which have taken the form of tent communities on public land that are directly and deliberately in violation of Eugene’s camping laws, were started by homeless members of the SLEEPS (Safe, Legally Entitled Emergency Places to Sleep) community. Activists associated with SLEEPS, including myself, have been fighting for the right to sleep for nearly two years now, with an extensive campaign consisting of public protest and civil disobedience as well as actively lobbying and pressuring city government to change its laws and policies that negatively impact the civil rights of homeless people.
Last April, SLEEPS won an initial victory when the Eugene City Council agreed to modify the camping ordinance in order to provide some sort of legal places to sleep. However, in the months following that initial agreement, conditions for the homeless took a turn for the worst. The Federal Bureau of Land Management’s decision to rehabilitate the West Eugene Wetlands resulted in the eviction of nearly 200 people from a parcel of swampland west of town, where many have been living for several years. Meanwhile, the Eugene Mission, the only walk-in shelter in the entire county, significantly reduced the number of available beds per night due to staffing issues and an inability to handle large numbers. And while these events took their toll on the local population, resulting in a noticeable and significant influx of displaced homeless people into the downtown area, the City Council dragged their feet on the camping ordinance, suddenly hesitant and cautious after an extensive amount of community opposition.
The combination of recent displacements, broken promises, and renewed police sweeps came to a head in early August, when a homeless camper who was evicted from the wetlands pitched a tent on public land in downtown Eugene underneath the Ferry Street Bridge. He publicly announced that he was there in protest, and that his intention was to camp in the public eye until the homeless were given the right to sleep. Others soon joined him, and by the time police cleared the camp a week later, over twenty campers had pitched tents at the site. The protest immediately moved to the Free Speech Plaza in downtown Eugene, and within a day, the population had doubled. The Plaza could not hold such a crowd. We needed a plan.
Alongside taking in the history of Hoovervilles and the Great Depression, I had spent the months leading up to this point researching public property in the city limits, envisioning the various possibilities around modern-day Hoovervilles on public land. Numerous trips to the county surveyor’s office and the deeds and records department had eventually resulted in a thorough list of every publicly owned parcel within reasonable walking distance of the downtown core. Satellite images, property visits, and tax maps provided a base of information which up to that point had only held value for visionary purposes. Suddenly, standing in the center of a large group of people determined to camp on public land in an act of civil disobedience, my pile of notes from the surveyor’s office became invaluable and an idea was sprouted. A few hours later, I came back with maps and notes, and a few people immediately stepped up, interested in seeding camps of their own. And from the idea of Hoovervilles, the “Whovilles” were born.
The first Whoville split off from the main SLEEPS protest within a few days, with a group of ten people who sought out a quieter area with the intention of shifting their focus from protest to forming a community. Their message was simple and clear: we are just like you, and homelessness can happen to anyone. They set up camp on a publicly-owned strip in front of the county fairgrounds, across the street from a row of houses. Within a few days, a second Whoville split off from the first, setting up camp a few miles away on a piece of county-owned property. After the first Whoville was evicted by police, they joined up with the second again, and when the combined encampment of 50+ people was forced to leave the county lot, they once again split in two and occupied two more public parcels. And thus began a game of cat-and-mouse between a determined tent community and the local police department, a game that continues as to the time of this writing, with a Whoville setting down on another parcel every time they are evicted from the last one. Every time they are forced to move, the Whoville community tightens, and their constant visibility and orderly habits have won them a significant amount of public support. And through it all, my time has been split between the world of the camps and the world of police and city officials, a never-ending back and forth, keeping both sides constantly apprised as to the next steps of the other.
The police understand their role in the cat-and-mouse game all too well, and are just as reluctant to move the campers as the campers are to move. The futility of this dance is equally evident to both parties, and the police have hit their own peak of frustration in a similar manner as the homeless. Their job requires that they enforce laws that many do not feel are fundamentally fair and just, and they enforce the camping law under orders while knowing full well that the people they cite have nowhere to go and no other option. The police are under significant pressure from upper management and the business community to step up enforcement, while at the same time community activists and civil rights lawyers constantly pressure them to relax their enforcement. They are caught between two worlds themselves, and the constant convergence of oppositional influences leaves many on the force with a muddied view of what it means “to protect and serve”. Overall, the police aren’t nearly as concerned with homeless people camping on public property as they are about the potential for violence against people in the camps.
As was to be expected, the spontaneous tent camps popping up throughout the community sparked outrage from the NIMBY (“not in my back yard”) crowd and from those who harbor prejudice against the homeless. Local media outlets, most of which are conservative in nature, effectively fanned the flames of anger and hate by focusing their coverage of the camps and protests on the fear and negative reactions, as opposed to the actual message and its effects. Social media sites lit up with hate-filled insults directed at the protesters, anonymous threats, and rhetoric that encouraged violence against the camps. At the height of my distress, I remembered a quote from Gandhi: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” As disturbing as the display of hatred was to us, especially in a “liberal” community that prides itself as a “Human Rights City”, the hateful energy directed at us was a powerful reminder that we were gaining traction, successfully pushing the issue, pulling people out of their comfort zones. On one level, rather than be intimidated, I took to viewing such threats as an indicator of our progress. At the same time, the threat of violence and property damage had become a reality. Bottlerockets were thrown into a Whoville camp from a passing car. A porta-potty has been stolen, another was tipped over. But rather than acting as a deterrent, such incidents only strengthened the will of those in the camps and their supporters. Their determination to remain in the public eye has increased and deepened.
And so the roving camps continue, with the Whovilles and the local police seemingly caught in a neverending cycle of relocation and eviction with no true resolution in sight. Meanwhile, after five months of stalling and deliberation, last Monday the City Council finally passed an ordinance creating a pilot program for small homeless camps. While this is a positive step in the right direction, it will only serve a small percentage of the community, and the reality remains that there are a few thousand people in this town who will not have the legal right to sleep this coming winter. While the public outcry has died down somewhat since the Council’s vote, the protests and camps will likely continue into the foreseeable future, as they are literally colonies of refugees with no legal place to stop and rest. And for as long as they remain in the public eye I will remain there with them, trying to express to the housed community how the other half lives, trying to reason with the powers that be as to the needs and rights of the disenfranchised, and trying my best to provide support and encouragement to an overlooked underclass that has shown remarkable courage by deliberately placing themselves in the public spotlight.
I often sense that the invisible yet often-impenetrable borders between the two worlds are fading ever so slightly, and my long-term hope is not only that the homeless community will be granted the right to sleep, but that eventually the cultural differences between the housed and unhoused will no longer serve as a basis for building up walls. I hope that one day, walking between these worlds with diplomatic intentions in mind will simply no longer be necessary.