Archives For Alley Valkyrie

The fact that it was the spring equinox did not occur to me at first. I was drawn out of my house by the rare March sun, and was immediately and utterly transfixed by a vibrant downtown which had suddenly come alive after several months’ worth of of gloomy weather. As I stood there, soaking up the sun and the atmosphere, I heard the familiar yell in the distance, and when I turned around I saw John Brewster coming around the corner on his bicycle, uttering yet another variation of his trademark line:

“I love America and I love the sunshine and I love freedom of speech, but LTD can lick my sweaty, shaven….”

Spring has arrived, I thought to myself. The locals are officially no longer in hibernation.

John Brewster (aka "LTD guy")

John Brewster (aka “LTD guy”)

In a town well known for its eccentric and colorful residents, John Brewster is one of a handful of figures who stand out even amongst Eugene’s characteristically odd landscape. Better known as the “LTD Guy”, Brewster has been riding around downtown screaming about his nether regions for well over a decade now, often while dressed in flamboyant costumes. Brewster’s tirades against the Lane Transit District have earned him a certain degree of notoriety, and he has achieved a local cult status with an accompanying fan club. Many people cheer him on as he passes by, while others roll their eyes in annoyance or ignore him outright. In the warmer months, Brewster can often be spotted on a daily basis, sometimes several times over the course of a sunny afternoon.

Brewster’s story and history has been profiled in local media and he has even been the subject of a student documentary, and yet most people in the community who see him on any given day still don’t know what he’s so angry about. They laugh, they make small conversation, they note the differences over time in his costume or his script, but the point of his rant or the history behind it is lost on them for the most part. It’s evident from the way that most people react to Brewster that the story behind his anger is not nearly as significant or meaningful to them as the spectacle that is Brewster himself.

John Brewster is one of Eugene’s (mostly) celebrated outsiders, and in the minds of many, the community’s enthusiastic embrace of such figures demonstrates our local values in action, the idea that Eugene is an inclusive community that accepts everyone despite their quirks. But while so many cheer on and support these eccentric local celebrities as a testament to the idea of radical inclusion, what so many fail to recognize is the fact that the circumstances surrounding their notoriety are a result of systematic exclusion policies, policies which seemingly stand in stark contrast to the ideas and values around inclusivity. In embracing the spectacle of the person rather than their actual story, the community can feel good about accepting people of all stripes while conveniently failing to acknowledge the widespread practices that result in such ‘outsider’ status in the first place.

In Brewster’s case, a fight with a bus driver many years ago over whether he could bring his bicycle on the bus resulted in a permanent ban from the LTD bus system, and absent any accessible method of recourse, Brewster has aired his grudges very publicly and theatrically ever since. He is one of a countless number of people who have been banned from the bus system, the vast majority of them homeless and/or mentally ill. And while his theatrics are often embraced, supported, and laughed at, the serious plight of Brewster and so many others is routinely dismissed and ignored. Brewster makes me smile as well, but behind the humor I recognize the dark truths that motivate his actions.

When I saw Brewster ride by on that unusually sunny equinox day, my thoughts immediately went to Glassbar Island, where I’ve seen Brewster sunning himself many times over the last several years. Unlike the theatrical character I often encounter downtown, out at Glassbar he’s not riding around screaming about anything at all. He’s simply one of the regulars, one of many stewards of the land who contribute to the unique character of the hidden little island at the edge of town, a place where outsiders like Brewster go to get away from it all.

Satellite image of Glassbar Island

Satellite image of Glassbar Island.

Situated on the confluence of the Coast Fork and Middle Fork of the Willamette River, Glassbar Island was originally known as “Bring Beach” due to the island’s location behind the old Bring Recycling facility, which sat on a county-owned parcel just outside the city limits. For over fifty years now, Glassbar Island has served as a hideaway of sorts for various people, groups, and activities that are not always accepted by the mainstream community. The island first gained a reputation as a nude swimming-hole in the ‘60s, later gained notoriety as a cruising spot in the ‘80s and ‘90s, has served as a sanctuary for the homeless throughout its history, and in the past decade has become recognized by scientists and botanists for its biological diversity and gained a reputation as an ideal spot for nature identification walks. Today, the island is mostly known as a spot for nude sunbathing, but folks of many different stripes not only peacefully co-exist on the island but also cooperatively maintain and care for the area.

Glassbar functions as a self-policing autonomous zone of sorts, publicly-owned yet left to its own devices. The island is open and welcoming to all, provided that one respects a code of behavior that is best described as mutual respect, cooperation, discretion, and leaving no trace. More often than not, I’ve found myself to be the only one on the island who is neither homeless nor naked, and yet I have always felt completely welcome in this community of outsiders. I fall into another category of respectful visitors: those who simply find the place enchanting and otherworldly.

Coyote tracks found at Glassbar Island

Coyote tracks found at Glassbar Island.

The otherworldly aspects of Glassbar Island are not limited to what is found on the island itself. Getting there is often an adventure plucked straight out of a fairy-tale. In the spring and summer months, the Coast Fork dips low enough that one can easily walk across an ankle-deep natural land bridge to the island. During the rainy season, however, the river has been known to crest at well over twelve feet, cutting off island access to everyone except experienced boaters. While my own local sign that spring has arrived is the spotting of John Brewster, the true sign of spring for the close-knit Glassbar community is the day the river dips low enough to safely wade over.

Even when the river is safe to cross, access is still limited to those “in the know”. For an untold number of years, most people accessed the island from a county-owned parcel that led to the low point of the river, until last year when the County shut off access, citing environmental and safety concerns. The parcel was gated and fenced to keep the Glassbar community out, and according to both the county and the state, the island is designated “river access only”, meaning it is only legally accessible by boat. This has not deterred the regulars, as there are numerous entrance points throughout the adjacent properties that all lead to the river. Those entrances are not easy to find, however, and the lack of knowledge around the current access points has only added to the island’s mystique. In its present state, it is not only an island of outsiders, but of outlaws as well: one must break the law to access it on foot. The island is still public and open to all, but every person who fords the river to the island has committed an act of criminal trespass.

There are many angles to the controversy over restricting land access to the island, but remembering John Brewster’s association with Glassbar always brings me back to the politics of inclusion and exclusion, especially in light of the County’s hyperbolic excuses for closing the parcel. County officials publicly cited problems with prostitution, drugs, and sex trafficking in justifying their actions without offering any evidence to back the allegations, and in response the media outlets and private citizens alike alluded to the presence of nude sunbathers, homeless people, and the gay community as the potential sources of those problems. And while the county’s claims were mostly refuted or disproven by the Glassbar community as well as area residents, the fences went up nonetheless and the voices of opposition were drowned out.

No trespassing gate.

No trespassing gate.

The idea that law and policy has created yet one more restriction on where the John Brewsters of the world are allowed to exist troubles me not only on an ethical level, but on a deep spiritual level as well. Scare tactics were used to defend actions that in the end only served as an attempt to further exclude the already marginalized amongst us, and the interconnectedness between the island itself and the community that interacts with and tends to it was completely disregarded in the equation. Among many other things, it was never considered that the island itself greatly benefits from the community and the stewardship that the Glassbar community provides. To say that the relationship is reciprocal would be putting it mildly.

Glassbar path

Glassbar path

As I stood downtown on that sunny equinox day, watching John Brewster ride past me as my thoughts drifted to Glassbar, I felt an immediate pull to head out to the island myself, something I’ve never attempted so early in the season. I had spent much of the winter ruminating on the ways that community, exclusion, and perception interact in and with this specific place that is Eugene, and Glassbar contains and expresses each of those elements more concretely than any other singular place I know of here. And at that moment, heading out to the island seemed more of a directive than anything else, a directive that I was determined to fulfill despite the fact that the river was reported to be nearly three feet high at the crossing.

With the sun holding out, a few days later I set out towards the island with two friends, neither who had ever experienced our destination before. And despite setting out with explorative intentions and a focus on exclusion, my initial reasons for the trip evaporated as we were immediately caught up in the area’s magic. From the moment we stepped upon the initial path beneath the trestle that leads out the abandoned haul road, which we followed for a mile to the river crossing in order to trek across the river itself, I felt myself moving in and through a world completely out of place and time, anchored only by the constant reminder that I was supposedly acting as a navigator for my companions. We took off our boots and set out to ford the river, and although I am usually nervous and wary around rivers, the numinous aspects of our surroundings and the otherworldliness of the moment completely drowned out my anxiety. As I stood in the middle of the Willamette, thigh-high in rushing water, my feet grasping for the next river stone in front of me as I tried desperately not to fall, a message came through to me loud and clear, a message that came straight from the river itself:

Do not focus on exclusion so much that you miss the enchantment.

My fellow adventurer crossing the river behind me.

My fellow adventurer crossing the river behind me.

And the enchantment swept over me, midway across the river. As soon as we made it across to the island itself, another friend of mine spotted us and immediately took on a tour guide role, taking us around the island while explaining the history and landscape to my companions. I followed closely, trying to pay attention, trying to process what was occurring in the moment, but I kept slipping away despite my best intentions. Space and boundaries blurred as I walked on, and the more I tried to revisit my original purpose, the more I slipped into the otherworld that lay before me. I always felt welcome on this island of outsiders, but I also have always felt as an outsider myself. This time, I felt a part of the island’s dance, pulled in and transfixed by its numinosity. By the time we had reached the other end of the island, several hours had gone by in what seemed like mere moments. As I stepped in the river to cross back, the feeling of inclusiveness and belonging held me up in one sense, as the physical presence of a friend held me up in the literal sense.

The following day, I walked towards downtown with the ideas of inclusion and enchantment floating around in my brain, and John Brewster came around the corner once again like clockwork. I watched as a group of college students interacted with him, and I thought back to the message I received in the river. Do not focus on exclusion so much that you miss the enchantment. The students were laughing as they spoke to him, obviously enchanted in the moment. The policies and forces that create outsiders like Brewster are often unjustified and contradictory to the stated values of this community, but that does not cancel out the power and the beauty of the community’s embrace of such characters, nor does it weaken the effect that these outsiders can have upon the people around them and the everyday nature of a given place. Despite his exclusion, John Brewster interacts within a place where he feels like he belongs, and he is a part of the dance of this community just as much as I felt a part of the dance of the island. Brewster’s presence is a tragedy of sorts, but his presence is also a gift.

The rains came back in a few days ago, and the Coast Fork is slated to crest at ten feet in the next day or two, once again cutting off access to Glassbar Island. Our island trek the week before suddenly seems like a faraway dream, and knowing that our visit occurred in what turned out to be a small window of accessibility only adds to the mysticality of the experience. The county may not be able to successfully block off access to Glassbar Island, but the river itself can achieve that task without issue. And a community of outsiders will wait patiently until they can cross at the ford once again.

“You may want to consider relocating to an area with adequate law enforcement services.”

This was Sheriff Gil Gilbertson’s advice to women fearing domestic violence in Josephine County, Oregon in the spring of 2012, after drastic cuts to public safety funding resulted in a reduction from 24 sheriff’s deputies to only 6. A few months later, Gilbertson’s chilling warning became a reality when a woman in Josephine County was sexually assaulted by an abusive ex-boyfriend despite calling 911 and pleading for help to the dispatcher for over ten minutes. The dispatcher was not able to send help because there were no deputies on duty at the time. When the Josephine County dispatcher routed the call through to the Oregon State Police, there were also no officers available. Over the course of the call, the State Police dispatcher remarked that it was “unfortunate you guys don’t have any law enforcement up there” and suggested that the terrified caller “ask him to go away”.

The incident made national news a few months later after Josephine County voters once again considered and then narrowly rejected a modest property tax levy that would have provided for adequate law enforcement. Despite having the lowest property taxes of any county in Oregon, and despite the fact that the failure to pass a tax levy the year before resulted in a woman being brutalized, voters had apparently decided that the safety of local citizens was not worth an average of $18.50 per household per month.

On the surface, it would seem easy to simply blame Josephine County voters for their woes, but the situation that led to the county’s financial crisis is far more complicated than just a matter of property taxes. Nearly 70% of the land in Josephine County is owned by the federal government, and the county receives no tax revenue from that land regardless of whether a tax levy is passed or not. Josephine County is one of eighteen counties in Oregon that has been receiving timber payments from the federal government to compensate for the lost tax revenue from federally-owned land since the 1930s. The amounts of payments are dependent on sustainable-yield harvests, and for many of these counties, known collectively as the “O&C counties”, these timber payments have made the difference between feast and famine for nearly a century. And while the O&C counties prospered as a result of these payments up through the late 1980s, over the past 25 years many of these counties have fallen into financial ruin as the payments slowly dried up.

While many felt that Josephine County voters were simply prioritizing their anti-tax sentiment over their need for adequate public safety services, its important to recognize that in rejecting the tax levies, the citizens of Josephine County were not only demonstrating their belief that the federal government has an obligation to help fill their budget gap, but many also strongly believed that rejecting the levies would either prompt Congress to increase timber harvests or would trigger additional financial assistance from the federal government.

The short explanation behind Josephine County’s financial crisis is that the rapid deforestation of Oregon’s old-growth forests over the past century eventually led to a steady decline in timber harvests, which in turn reduced the federal timber payments down to a trickle. The larger story behind that simple explanation, however, of how and why Oregon developed such a pathological dependence on timber in the first place and why basic municipal infrastructures are so rapidly failing as a consequence of that dependence, is an interesting tale of money and politics that stretches back over 150 years. And while critics had pointed out for many years that Oregon’s failure to diversify its timber-dependent economy would eventually lead to both economic and biological disaster, few ever truly imagined a day where in the words of a local forest activist, “we are now being told that protecting women from rape is contingent upon raping the earth.”

Clear-cut forests near Eugene, Oregon. Photo by Calibas.

Clear-cut forests near Eugene, Oregon. Photo by Calibas.

It all started with the desire for a railroad.

The Oregon and California Railroad Act, passed by Congress in 1866, dedicated nearly four million acres of land to be made available to any company who would build a railroad from Portland to San Francisco. The Act dictated that the land was to be distributed in 12,800-acre land grants for each mile of track that was built, with an amendment three years later requiring the railroad company to sell the land adjacent to the rail line in 160-acre parcels to be priced at only $2.50 an acre in order to encourage settlement along the corridor. The theory behind the land-grant arrangement was that the sale of the parcels granted to the railroad company would financially compensate the railroad company for building the railroad in the first place. Meanwhile, the value of the government parcels would increase significantly over time due to the building of the railroad as well as the development that would occur on the parcels that the railroad sold to settlers, which would financially benefit the government in the long-term. Similar land grants had successfully enticed railroad companies to construct what became the first transcontinental railroad, which broke ground in 1863 and was completed in 1869.

The O&C parcels were laid out in a checkerboard pattern, extending twenty miles out from each side of the tracks, with the parcels designated for settlers alternating with parcels that were retained by the federal government. Construction was first started in Portland in 1868, and the route was completed over Siskiyou Summit into California by 1877, at which time the Southern Pacific Railroad took control of the railroad line. But while the laying of the tracks itself went smoothly, selling the available land parcels to settlers proved to be quite problematic. The terrain, which was rugged, mountainous, and consisted mostly of old-growth Douglas Fir and Western Hemlock, was not ideal nor practical for development, and the land proved to be difficult if not impossible to sell to potential homesteaders. Timber companies, on the other hand, coveted the parcels, but the land grant stipulated that the land was to only be sold to bona-fide settlers. This left the railroad company unable to recoup the money that was spent on building the railroad, as was the original purpose of the land grant.

And from this dilemma, a massive land-fraud scandal was born.

The racket was brilliantly simple. The president of the Southern Pacific Railroad hired a former surveyor tasked with rounding up working-class folks from the bars and saloons on Portland’s waterfront. The surveyor would escort the saloon patrons over to the land office and pay them to pose as a settlers, where they would register and pay $2.50 an acre for an O&C parcel and then immediately sell the parcel back to the railroad company. The railroad company then sold off the parcels in large blocks to the highest-bidding timber companies, who then harvested the timber without restrictions. This continued throughout the first decade of the 20th Century, until a disgruntled lumber employee tipped a Portland newspaper off to the scheme. The investigations that followed led to hundreds of federal indictments.

After the subsequent trials and convictions, the question remained as to how to legally handle the issue of the land fraud and the parcels themselves. A flurry of lawsuits between the state of Oregon, the federal government, and Southern Pacific resulted in a 1915 Supreme Court ruling that found that although the railroad company had violated the terms of the grant, they had a right to retain the land because the railroad had still been built as per the agreement. A year later, Congress overrode the Supreme Court’s decision with the passing of the Chamberlain-Ferris Act, which declared that 2,800,000 acres out of the nearly four million acres granted were to be revested back to the United States under the control of the General Land Office, which later became the Bureau of Land Management. Under the Act, the land became known as the “Oregon and California Railroad Revested Lands”, commonly referred to thereafter as the “O&C Lands”. The original plan under the Chamberlain-Ferris Act was for the land to again be re-sold into private ownership so that the counties could recover their tax base, but once again selling the land to settlers and developers proved to be difficult if not impossible due to the rugged terrain.

1974676_10152229571698518_1421558555_n

Finally, in 1937, Congress passed the O&C Act, revising the terms of the Chamberlain-Ferris Act and mandating that the land be managed for forest production and that the 18 affected Oregon counties be compensated for the loss of tax revenue. The Act guaranteed the counties 75% of the revenue from timber sales on O&C lands, which could be used by the counties for any purpose they chose. A year after the Act was passed, Oregon surpassed the state of Washington as the number-one timber producing state in America.

Under the terms and financial structure of the O&C Act, the counties themselves became the most vocal champions of timber production. More production meant more money flowing into county coffers, and for the next fifty years, the O&C counties in Oregon produced more timber than any other region in the entire world, leveling over 80% of Oregon’s old-growth forests in the process. Between the jobs created through the timber industry and the revenue that flowed through the O&C counties as a result, timber was not only the most dominating economic force throughout Oregon, in many rural areas it was pretty much the only economic force. At the height of the timber boom in the 1940s and 1950s, loggers harvested several billion board feet per year from the O&C lands, and by the 1960s more timber was being harvested on federal lands than any private land in Oregon.

Clearcuts on O&C lands outside of Oakridge, Oregon

Clearcuts on O&C lands outside of Oakridge, Oregon

For years, as old growth was logged and the O&C counties flourished, environmentalists watched the massive deforestation and subsequent destruction of a thriving ecosystem with horror. Under the terms of the O&C Act, however, there was little they could do to halt the logging. Years’ worth of environmental lawsuits had failed to produce any results, and yet the effects of deforestation on certain species were becoming plainly apparent. In 1986, environmentalists first petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list the Northern Spotted Owl as a threatened species. The USFWS reviewed the petition in both 1987 and 1989, but declined to list the owl as endangered. In the meantime, forest activists started to blockade federal forests in order to stall logging operations while more lawsuits worked their way through the court system.

The Northern Spotted Owl

The Northern Spotted Owl

Finally, in 1990, the Northern Spotted Owl was listed as an endangered species under the federal Endangered Species Act. Loss of old-growth habitat was listed as the primary threat the owl, which gave environmental activists the ammunition they needed. A lawsuit was filed, claiming that logging timber harvesting old-growth habitat was in violation of the Endangered Species Act due to the presence of the Northern Spotted Owl, and in 1991 logging was halted on the O&C lands via court order. This order provided immediate relief for the owl and the forest, but also had an immediate and devastating affect on the timber payments that the O&C counties relied on, and officials stated that anywhere from 30,000 to 150,000 jobs would be lost as a result of the court order.

During his first campaign for office, presidential hopeful Bill Clinton promised Oregon voters that if elected, he would work to break the deadlock. Clinton kept his promise, and in 1994 his administration adopted the Northwest Forest Plan (NFP), which was intended to balance the need for logging on federal lands with the need to protect the habitat of the Northern Spotted Owl. The plan strongly decreased the amount of timber yields that were allowed under the original O&C Act, and set aside several million acres of old-growth forest as habitat for the Northwest Spotted Owl. And while the compromise set forth in the Northwest Forest Plan was arguably better than the stalemate that had preceded it, neither side was happy with the results. Environmentalists and forest activists pointed out that the plan did not go far enough to protect old-growth forests and municipal watersheds, while timber executives and county officials insisted that the allowed yields were not high enough to sustain the timber industry and the economic health of the O&C counties. Over the next several years, the concerns of both groups came to fruition. Environmentalists witnessed, documented, and publicized the negative effects that the logging was having on the ecosystem, which further empowered the forest defense movement to take up blockades in the forest. Meanwhile, the timber revenues of the O&C Counties continued to plummet, and timber jobs steadily started to vanish. Rural towns descended into poverty, while municipal and county governments struggled to stay afloat.

Once again the O&C dilemma compelled the federal government to act, and in the year 2000 Congress created a safety net for the Oregon timber counties as well as other rural areas affected by declining timber harvests by enacting the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act of 2000. The Act allowed the O&C counties to receive the average of the three highest timber payments from 1986 through 1999 in lieu of the payments owed based on actual yields, which at the time was an average of only 150 million board feet a year. The Act originally was set to expire in 1996, but was renewed several times without lapsing, with the amounts decreasing with each renewal. In early 2012, however, the bill stalled in Congress and the federal timber payments lapsed for the first time since they began in 1937, which directly resulted in Josephine County’s drastic public safety cuts and Sheriff Gil Gilbertson’s ominous warning. Although Congress eventually renewed the payments, the Act is again set to expire in a few years.

Today, only 10% of Oregon’s old-growth forests remain, and two more “compromise” bills working their way through Congress are being championed as problem-solvers but also potentially threaten much of the remaining old-growth habitat. The competing bills, one sponsored by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) and the other sponsored by Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR), have both come under fire from environmentalists and forest activists for increasing timber harvests on the O&C lands. DeFazio’s plan would turn over portions of the O&C lands to a state-managed trust for harvest, while granting federal wilderness protections to other sections of the O&C lands. Wyden’s plan is strikingly similar, claiming that it will boost timber harvests from the current 150 million board feet a year to anywhere between 300 and 400 million board feet a year while protecting trees that are over 150 years old. It is inevitable that one of the bills will become law, which in the long run will only serve as another band-aid that will not satisfy either side. The potential agreement only furthers Oregon’s dependence on a finite resource that is undeniably running out.

forest defenders

Forest defenders blockading threatened old-growth habitat

Growing up on the other side of the country, it was my fascination with the forest defense movement in the Pacific Northwest that first lured me to Oregon a decade ago, where I spent two weeks in the Willamette National Forest assisting with a tree-sit at a timber sale on the O&C lands. At the time, I knew little of the history and politics that led to the action I was participating in, but the experience of climbing 200 feet up a Douglas fir and the effects of sleeping and waking surrounded by old-growth had forever altered my understanding of the sacred. It was also in the forest that I first regarded the actions of forest activists as a militant form of earth-worship, and it was the energy and passion of certain individuals within that movement that strongly factored in my decision to permanently relocate to Oregon a few years later. Since then, my experiences with the land and the people here have greatly expanded my understanding of the timber-related history and politics that have driven and controlled this area for the past century. Never have I seen or experienced a single issue that so strongly reverberates through so many people and so deeply within a place, and never have I been at more at a loss for answers or solutions. Often I can’t help but feel that Western Oregon is a real-life version of “The Lorax”, complete with an equally grim and predictable ending.

In the meantime, it was announced last week that petitioners in Josephine County have gathered enough signatures to place another tax levy on the ballot this coming May. And while I can’t predict exactly what the future holds for Josephine County or any of the other O&C counties for that matter, what I do know for sure is if the long-term safety, security, and livelihood of the citizenry is dependent on the consumption and destruction of our old-growth forests, we will have retained neither our security nor our biodiversity in the end.

“I’m in a lot of pain right now,” Daisy said to me quietly.

I wasn’t sure exactly what type of pain she was referring to at that moment. For as long as I have known Daisy, which is going on six years now, she has lived a life of constant pain, both physical as well as psychological. She was sober and alert at the moment, which led me to think that she was referring to her arthritis as opposed to her inner trauma and emotional turmoil.

“But I’m still a fighter,” she added with a smile.

The fact that she was a fighter was undisputed in my mind. Daisy has been on the streets of this town for an untold number of years, with a notable portion of that time spent either stumbling through various stages of intoxication or stumbling through various stages of the criminal justice system. Despite the tragedy and trauma of her everyday life, however, her spirit was anything but broken. She is one of many chronically homeless individuals in downtown Eugene who the police refer to as “frequent flyers” due to the frequent amount of times that they are arrested and released for minor offenses directly related to homelessness and/or addiction. Rarely can you find a business owner or resident in the downtown area who isn’t familiar with Daisy, and unfortunately much of that familiarity falls with the context of negative interactions that often result in police intervention. This has resulted in her being banned from entering several local businesses, which further affects her stabilization and well being. For anyone on the street, but especially for someone like Daisy, a lack of access to public establishments means lack of access to quality food and other survival necessities, which triggers stress, which then triggers behavioral issues, which results in another episode, which results in yet another exclusion and/or trip to jail, and so on and so forth. It’s a tragic cycle, one that is seemingly impossible to break under the current conditions and limitations of the system.

The alleyway behind my building, where I have often found Daisy asleep.

The alleyway behind my building, where I have often found Daisy asleep.

Much like the business owners and residents, the police hold a variety of emotions and attitudes regarding Daisy that range from compassion to frustration to contempt. In my many conversations over the past few years with allies in the police department, it has been made clear to me that they are quite aware that constantly arresting, jailing, and prosecuting Daisy and others like her for the “crime” of being a chronically homeless alcoholic is neither effective nor sensible, not to mention a huge waste of taxpayer money. And yet they stress that they have “no other tools in the toolbox” in terms of methods of dealing with people like Daisy, and I sympathize and agree with them on this point. Their training prepared them to be law enforcement officers, not social workers or crisis intervention counselors, and their duty to uphold the law often requires that they treat Daisy as a criminal in situations that they acknowledge would be much more effectively handled by trained crisis intervention workers as opposed to law enforcement.

I’ve gotten to know Daisy pretty well over the years. I’ve experienced her many moods and phases, and while I understand and sympathize with the frustration and anger that police and businesses often feel towards Daisy, I have quite the soft spot in my heart for her. I’ve gotten to know sides of Daisy that most have never experienced. I’ve interacted with sober Daisy, happy Daisy, worried Daisy. She’s told me jokes that made me laugh until I cried, and she’s told me stories about her life that have simply made me cry. I see Daisy as a person, not a “problem” or “nuisance”, and its impossible for me to every be truly angry with her despite often wanting to scream in hopeless frustration. I refuse to blame or condemn her, and I’ve been known to intervene when others feel they have the right to do so. At the end of the day, I feel nothing but sympathy and love and compassion for Daisy.

Many argue that such an approach and attitude is akin to “enabling”, but I don’t love and accept (and often defend) Daisy as she is because I approve of or condone her behavior. I love and accept and defend Daisy as she is because I recognize her beauty and worth as an individual despite her flaws and I strongly believe that she deserves a better life, even and especially when she does not always believe so herself. Daisy’s behavioral history and current condition is the result of a complex combination of medical, social, psychological, and economic factors, not a personal moral failing on her part as many would believe. It’s been said that a society is judged by how we treat our most vulnerable. In my eyes, Daisy’s situation signifies a society that has failed in this regard, and as a result of that failure so many people are systematically marginalized, condemned, alienated, and stripped of their dignity.

More than anything else, at the very, very least Daisy deserves to be treated with dignity. No matter how intoxicated, how angry, or how unmanageable she can be, she is a human being who has had a tougher life than most of us could possibly imagine, and regardless of her past or present challenges, Daisy is as worthy and sacred and divine as any and all of us are. She may not be able to “work” to earn her keep in her current state, but that does not mean she does not have value as a person and as a member of our community. She deserves respect and dignity, and she deserves a warm, safe place to sleep at night. All human beings need and deserve a place to sleep.

It has been said that the definition of insanity is repeating the same action over and over again and expecting different results. Under that definition, the city’s approach to handling Daisy over the years is completely insane. It’s recognized on both a local and national level that criminalizing addiction as well as criminalizing life-sustaining behaviors is a dead-end to nowhere in terms of effectiveness, and Daisy’s situation perfectly demonstrates the utter failure of a criminalization-based approach. Police acknowledge that more than anything else, Daisy and others like her need a place to sleep and supportive services, not endless rounds through the criminal justice system. But sadly, the only dry and legal place to sleep that Daisy regularly experiences is a bed inside a jail cell.

Police in the process of arresting a homeless individual for public consumption

Police in the process of arresting a homeless individual for public consumption.

The city’s approach regarding Daisy and the other “frequent flyers” is not only logically insane, but it’s a prime example of financial insanity as well. Estimates can vary widely, and such costs are deliberately not itemized, but its been whispered in many corners of city government and the social service sector that some of the frequent flyers cost the taxpayers upwards of $100,000 per person, per year. The majority of these costs, which usually consist of numerous trips to the police station, the jail, the emergency room, the psych ward, and the detox facility, are directly related to living on the street without shelter options, and most of these costs could be greatly reduced by adopting the “Housing First” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Housing_First) model for chronically homeless individuals like Daisy as opposed to criminalizing their existence. In states and cities that have implemented Housing First, the cost-savings has been significant, one example being a stunning 2/3 reduction in costs per-person in Colorado. And while city officials are open and eager to adopting such practices in Eugene, the funding is currently not available on either a local or state level. In the meantime, for over a decade now Daisy and so many others have had no other option than to live on the streets.

For the past few months, however, Daisy has been living at an unsanctioned tent city at the edge of the downtown district known as Whoville. The Whoville camp is a self-governed, community-funded project that has been providing sanctuary for as many as 50 people at a time on a 4,000 square foot public lot since late September. Whoville functions as a collaborative effort between those who were living on the streets and members of the community who are able and willing to provide support: activists, non-profits, church groups, and concerned citizens alike. Whoville currently provides a safe place to sleep, regular access to bathrooms and handwashing stations, access to healthy food and a place to cook it, and a strong network of community support from and for a wide range of people from all walks of life. In many ways, the Whoville population is a perfect microcosm of the homeless population as a whole. Whoville residents range from the recently unemployed to the permanently disabled, from those simply down on their luck to those who suffer from addictions or severe mental illnesses. There are people at Whoville who have only been homeless for a few months, and others who have been homeless for a significant portion of their lives.

The Whoville camp as seen from the street

The Whoville camp as seen from the street.

To be fair, the formation of Whoville in itself arguably falls under the above-referenced definition of insanity. For over thirty years, camping laws have been regularly enforced throughout the City of Eugene, with little to no tolerance of tent communities of any kind. Both history and common sense suggest that any tent community that is formed on public land in Eugene would be disbanded by police, without exception. And yet, in the midst of an immediate crisis in which some of the most vulnerable members of our community had nowhere to go, a public tent city seemed to be the only option. Desperation often leads to insane thinking, and granted we were desperate. But we also knew from past experience, street folks and activists alike, that even though camp would certainly be shut down, that it was what happens within such a camp while it exists that often holds more power than the inevitability fate of the camp itself, which provided the motivation to go forth despite what seemed to be a foregone conclusion.

And so Whoville was formed, and it grew, and it was supported. It grew some more, and it gained more support. The camp moved around from parcel to parcel for five weeks, then strategically decided to stand their ground at a vacant public lot just outside of downtown. And over the course of four months, Whoville relationship with both the police and the community at large went from adversarial to cooperative. Local opposition morphed into wary but gradual and steady public acceptance. As Whoville grew, downtown business owners noticed that less people were sleeping in doorways, in parks, in alleyways. There were fewer behavioral issues downtown, fewer incidents related to disorderly conduct, fewer calls to the police department. Some of the frequent flyers had all but vanished from downtown.

For years, activists and advocates as well as the homeless population itself has consistently approached the city with a very simple and sensible message: If you don’t want downtown full of frequent flyers and other subpopulations that are experiencing the realities and effects of homelessness, give them somewhere else to go. If you’re going to tell people where they can’t be, you need to tell them where they can be. People exist, they are made of matter, they do not have the ability to disappear or vanish at will, they have bodily needs and survival needs that cannot be ignored, and they need a place where they can legally exist.

This concept has seemingly fallen on deaf ears for years, as the city continued its policies of criminalizing their existence with the insane hope that one day the homeless will just disappear or go somewhere else. But Whoville, acting on the belief that survival and dignity are more important than ordinances and citations and therefore worth fighting for, has demonstrated and proved that having a place to be not only results in the relocation of those who formerly had nowhere to be other than downtown street corners, but it has also demonstrated to the community that by providing such a place, even the most challenging members of the street population can stabilize to an extent. Not only have behavioral issues reduced, but the corresponding costs to the public of dealing with such issues have been reduced as well. Echoing the results of the Housing First model, the “frequent flyers” at Whoville have needed far fewer law enforcement interventions or emergency services than they had while living on the streets, a fact which has been noted by both police and social service providers. It’s a testament to the fact that while sheltering individuals indoors is obviously preferable, even an outdoor space where they have a place to exist and stabilize within a community results in both instant as well as long-term benefits as opposed to leaving people on the street with nowhere to go.

Even more important than the economic benefits, however, is the transformation and healing that has occurred for many in the Whoville community through the course of its existence. In the time since she has been at Whoville, the improvements in Daisy that myself and others have witnessed has been nothing short of remarkable. The day she whispered to me about her pain, I had stopped by Whoville early in the evening, and it was obvious that she had been sober all day. She was alert, she had a healthy skin tone, and other than her pain issues, Daisy was more upbeat and even-tempered than I had ever witnessed in all the years that I’ve known her. She was functioning within a community, as part of a family, being taken care of, and trying to take care of herself as well. When she reminded me that she was a fighter, it literally brought me to tears. For so long, I had dreamed for something better, anything better for Daisy than what I had been witnessing for years. And finally, she had somewhere to be, was a part of a community, and was taking steps on the road to healing. For Daisy and many others, the community brings a sense of acceptance and belonging that is an essential component of anyone’s well being. I can point to many individual factors that have been an improvement in Daisy’s life as a result of Whoville, but the most powerful factor that I’ve witnessed in the improvement of many here is the power of community itself, both the internal community of Whoville residents and the outer community that supports them.

Formerly a favorite “frequent flyer” hangout, with much less foot traffic as of late.

Formerly a favorite “frequent flyer” hangout, with much less foot traffic as of late.

Ironically, I was walking past an area near my building a few weeks ago and had paused at a spot where I would often find Daisy in the past when I received a text message from my primary contact at the police department, requesting a meeting later in the afternoon. I knew immediately that I was about to be informed of the City’s intent to evict Whoville. Despite everything the community had provided and demonstrated over a period of four months, the City’s response would be no different: send them packing with nowhere legal for them to go and act as if they’ll just disappear. The meeting confirmed my expectations down to the smallest details. No alternate campsites would be opened. No emergency shelter of any kind would be provided. The camp would be evicted sometime in the immediate future with no alternate arrangements made and no real consideration given to the fact that some of the Whoville residents desperately needed supportive services and were not able to adequately care for themselves on their own.

I’ve often observed that the primary narrative concerning the issue of homelessness in this community is dominated by two vocal minorities: the homeless themselves and those who advocate for and support them, and those who believe that the homeless people are all “lazy bums” who are only looking for a “handout”. Often lost in this polarized atmosphere are the sentiments and feelings of the general public as a whole. Both sides of the debate will often claim “public support” for their position, but both sides are arguably equally speculative in those assertions. There is a lot of compassion in this community, but there is also a lot of ignorance.

But this time, while voices obviously rose loudly from within and around Whoville in opposition to the city’s plans, an entire separate chorus of voices also rose up against the plan – the voices of the general public. After four months, people in all corners of the community had recognized the value of Whoville, and many made their opposition to the closure known through social media, letters to the editor, as well as statements sent directly to the City Council. Other influential parties also chimed in, notably Occupy Medical and the city’s Human Rights Commission, speaking out in opposition to dispersing 40 people with nowhere safe for them to go. For the first time, public sentiment seemed to be truly understanding of the idea that if we force people to leave, we must give them somewhere else to be.

And under pressure from many directions, public officials responded, and last Wednesday the City Council granted Whoville a 30-day reprieve while viable alternatives can be explored. While the decision does not guarantee that there will be a place for Whoville to relocate a month from now, it is a decision based on the recognition that pushing people out with nowhere for them to go is neither humane nor sensible, nor does serve any legitimate purpose. Its also a recognition of the fact that Whoville is meeting a vital community need that has gone unmet due to holes in the social safety net, and that the stabilization and healing that people are experiencing at Whoville is a benefit to the community as a whole. Many are starting to recognize that the segment of the street population that the city has deemed ‘unmanageable’ can often function quite well with the right kind of community support. The decision gives the community an opportunity to face this issue for what it truly is and to come forward with actual solutions. For once, an attempt at a common-sense approach is being attempted as a resolution, as opposed to the usual bureaucratic insanity that has been the status quo for years.

It’s a simple idea, really, the idea that someone who has been systematically marginalized and abandoned will show consistent improvement if and when someone shows them a little love and kindness. For someone like Daisy, the results have been nothing short of miraculous. We speak of “community” often, but I find that the word is so often used in a hollow sense, devoid of any real substance, and the true meaning and of community has either been forgotten or has never understood by so many. Whoville is a testament to the potential power and effectiveness of solidarity and horizontal collaboration as practiced in a community setting. United in the belief that everyone should be treated with respect and dignity, Whoville offers stability and sanctuary to those who have been all but forgotten, and their ability to self-govern and support each other is an example to us all.

Each of us is sacred and worthy, and we all deserve support and safety. And while its long-term future is still up in the air, if a society is judged by how it treats its most vulnerable, let Whoville be a beacon of light that guides others towards the right path.

(*Author’s Note: Daisy’s name and a few minor details have been changed for privacy reasons.)

The View From Above

Alley Valkyrie —  December 28, 2013 — 11 Comments

I must have driven past the Delta Ponds dozens of times without really giving it much thought or notice. While there was a certain swampy seductiveness that called out on foggy days, it never occurred to me while whizzing by at 55 mph that there was any real story there. It wasn’t until I got lost on the bike paths last spring and ran into some Great Blue Herons on my way to lunch that I realized that this secretive oasis was not only a thriving wildlife sanctuary, but that its existence told an interesting story of the destruction and restoration of a crucial part of the local ecosystem.

The Delta Ponds on a foggy winter morning

The Delta Ponds on a foggy winter morning.

The herons caused me to stop. Standing there, face-to-face with the Delta Ponds, it quickly occurred to me that they weren’t natural ponds. I looked around and took in my surroundings, in the middle of an isolated and strangely preserved natural area between a river and a highway. Suddenly, several clues came together, and the combination of the geographical location and the surrounding place names provided a pretty accurate assessment of the area’s history. The Delta Ponds were right alongside the Delta Highway, which essentially acts as a driveway up to the current riverfront mining operation of Delta Sand and Gravel. I only had recently learned about the mine at the northern end of the highway, but my visits up there had provided an instant reference for the use and nature of the immediate area.

Delta, I thought to myself. These ponds must be restored gravel mines which have been reconnected to the river, which means that this spot is possibly a former channel or side-channel of the Willamette River. The name of the road which loops around the Delta Ponds, Goodpasture Island Road, suggests that this patch of land was once cut off by a waterway, and used for grazing prior to it being mined for gravel. Not only was it a gravel mine, but the highway leading up to the current mine was most likely paved with the gravel that was mined right here.

A few minutes of iPhone research confirmed the bulk of my theory as well as filled in the missing gaps. The area was indeed once a side-channel of the Willamette, which was an important component of the river ecosystem, but the side-channel dried up around the turn of the century due to man-made alterations of the land. The land was then marshy pasture that was mined for gravel in the ‘50s and ‘60s, and then sold to the City after the gravel was exhausted, where the pits sat untouched for nearly forty years as the land around them was further altered and developed.

During that time, it suffered the same fate that many old gravel pits do: the pits flooded, and while they became a natural wildlife habitat over time, the pits also became over-run by invasive species such as blackberry and Scotch broom. Finally, with help from the Army Corps of Engineers, the city embarked on a $9 million-dollar restoration project, taking the greater part of a decade to complete, which removed the invasives, altered the steep slope of the gravel pits, and eventually reconnected the ponds to the river. Today, the restored side-channel habitat is the home to nearly 150 bird species, including herons, falcons, owls, and several varieties of hawk. A beautiful, concentrated wildlife preserve birthed out of an old gravel mine, strangely nestled between a river, a highway, and scores of condominiums and housing developments. It was a wonderful and unexpected discovery; despite its urban backdrop it felt hidden and sacred. And while I immediately appreciated the areas for the rare and beautiful habitat that it was, I also realized not only did this area stand out as an exception of sorts, but that it most likely stays off people’s radar as much as the issue of gravel mining itself does.

The restored Delta Ponds with the Willamette River in the background

The restored Delta Ponds with the Willamette River in the background.

Unlike the more well-known resource extraction practices such as clear-cutting, which leaves a visual scar that’s simply impossible to ignore as one drives or walks by, gravel mining is naturally much more obscured from public view, given that it often occurs in a pit. For the most part, the impacts of gravel mining are rarely seen from ground level, and citizens are often ignorant about mining operations that are practically occurring in their neighborhoods. As a result, while clear-cutting practices are the subject of much public outcry and heated debate, few words are said of the deliberate ecological destruction and devastation of our riverbanks that has been occurring since the early 1900’s. Most people generally have no idea that the vast majority of land along the confluence of the McKenzie and Willamette rivers north of town is owned by gravel mining corporations, or that much of the land which stretches from the confluence of the Middle and Coast Forks of the Willamette eastward towards and past Mt. Pisgah had been mined continuously for the past eighty years. Pristine parks and recreation areas border former gravel mines, and those using the parks are usually completely unaware that the remnants of gravel mining are out in plain sight only yards away.

Flooded gravel pits between the Middle Fork and the Coast Fork of the Willamette River. The grassy field at the very bottom is the site of the annual Faerieworlds festival.

Flooded gravel pits between the Middle Fork and the Coast Fork of the Willamette River. The grassy field at the very bottom is the site of the annual Faerieworlds festival.

Standing out over the Delta Ponds, it occurred to me that there’s a blessing in the fact that at least certain gravel pits can be restored in a generation, as opposed to clear-cuts that easily stand out fifty years later. The Delta Ponds, however, is a rare exception in that it is restored, as flooded gravel pits dot the landscape up and down the riverbank for miles and most are either listless or overgrown with blackberries. When I first gained awareness about the amount of gravel mining in the area, I visited several sites, on foot, on bike, and driving by. But aside from the occasional large crane sticking up out of the sky, it was hard to gain a real sense of the mines themselves. It wasn’t until I started studying Google aerial satellite images that I truly started to understand the impacts, cycles, and sheer ugliness of open-pit mining. Taking in the view from above is what really drilled it home.

Pit mine on the south bank of the McKenzie River

Pit mine on the south bank of the McKenzie River

The cement drills outside my window last summer also recently drilled it home. From May through September, a good number of the roads downtown were re-paved in a massive project paid for by a voter-approved bond. The condition of the roads and the actual need for repaving was somewhat debatable in my opinion, but the repairs created much-needed jobs, and provided a significant economic boon for the local sand and gravel companies. As I learned has been the case since the 1920s, the roads were paved exclusively by local companies and mined from either the Willamette or McKenzie, a fact that was stressed by company heads as a positive aspect. And while tapping into the “keep it local” energy was a brilliant move on the part of the gravel companies, it was bothersome to noticed such a disconnect on the part of the community. Well-meaning citizens celebrate keeping it local, but they fail to understand exactly how local and how significant the impact is, and they truly fail to recognize that not all of those local impacts are positive. While the Delta Ponds stands as a testament to something sacred that can be created out of the profane, it’s a very small gain when compared to the overall amount of land that has been or is being ripped apart for gravel.

Confluence of the Willamette and McKenzie rivers. Gravel mining operations are outlined in red.

Confluence of the Willamette and McKenzie rivers. Gravel mining operations are outlined in red.

Last June, the “finite” aspect of what are recognized as “finite natural resources” became a subject that caught the public’s attention. Delta Sand and Gravel’s most recent application to expand their mining operation at the end of the highway was rejected last spring by County officials, and in the ensuing media coverage Delta representatives stated that without the expansion, the company is set to run out of gravel in less than 15 years. For nearly a century, the aggregate that makes up the entirety of roads, sidewalks, jogging paths, and driveways has been “proudly” mined in Lane County by Delta and other companies, and Delta is forecasting a potential end to that tradition, at least in terms of their operation. The County is currently (and rightly) maintaining the need to protect zoned farmland, but Delta’s statements signal a future and possibly significant showdown over land-use on the riverbank. Even if current land-use laws were ignored, the reality is that the supply of gravel is still finite. One day the mining companies will be out of land. The land-use battles of present and future will only determine how much arable farmland is still available when that does happen.

In the meantime, however, Delta Ponds exists as an example of how such destruction can be successfully restored, and I am grateful for its existence and for my stumbling upon this place and the story behind it. For me, the ponds stand as a reminder of how environmental destruction can be taking place right in our midst and yet still remain hidden from view. Sometimes it takes an adjustment, a different perspective, to be able to see a situation clearly for what it is. In this case, I found great value in the view from above.

I was just about to get on my bike when I looked in the basket and saw the note.

“When you’re done finding Jesus, come by the shop and say hi.”

It made me laugh, and yet it also immediately brought me back to something I had been thinking about a lot lately. Indeed, my bike, which is well-known downtown and easily recognizable, had been locked up outside First Christian Church for the past two hours while I was inside for a meeting with a small group that included the church’s pastor. The author of the note was a Pagan friend of mine who worked around the corner from the church, and I sensed that the mood behind the note was both joking and curious at the same time. And while I hadn’t found Jesus in the previous two hours, I realized in that moment that I had been finding Jesus popping up constantly in my work over the past few years. It also occurred to me that at this point I had completely normalized these constant interactions with churches, pastors, and those who follow the philosophy of Jesus in a way that many Pagans would find a little strange to say the least.

First Christian Church in Eugene, Oregon.

First Christian Church in Eugene, Oregon.

I find it a more than a little strange myself at times. But the process of building those bridges has led me to not only greatly respect and appreciate those who work with the poor in the name of Jesus, but has brought me to constantly recognize and reflect on the fact that other than the specifics behind the deity that called us all to the table, we are all in the exact same fight for pretty much the exact same reasons. Over time I have unexpectedly come to understand and accept that the church folks are without a doubt my greatest allies, politically as well as spiritually.

I work with the poor and the homeless. I found myself doing so as a result of listening to both my conscience as well as the Gods. I do this work because I was called to it through an unexpected merging of ethics and spirit. It is much more a divine mandate than a free choice; for me it is a calling in the true religious sense, and yet not one that results from any specific belief or doctrine. Most people who work with the poor in the same way that I do fall into three categories: those who work for government agencies, those who work for non-profit organizations or social service agencies, and those who are following the teachings of Jesus. More often than not I find myself to be the only person in the room who stands apart from these three groups.

When I first felt the pull that started me on this journey, I recognized that the spiritual narrative around that pull was much common and relevant to Christianity than it was to Paganism. While I hadn’t quite given up all my worldly possessions and sworn a vow of poverty, I have sacrificed a theoretical life of ‘comfort’ and inevitably accepted a life of near-poverty in order to do this work full-time in a way that at least in America, is seldom seen outside of a Christian context. Jesus tended to the poor, preached to his followers that they should do the same, and an untold number of people since then have dedicated their lives to the poor in the name of Jesus. I had never stumbled upon a Pagan parallel to this phenomenon, at least not in terms of service to the poor. For me, while this work is a spiritual calling, it is not necessarily an extension of my religious beliefs. There is nothing specific in the teachings of my tradition that critiques wealth or that tells me to serve the poor, nor have I ever stumbled upon related teachings or mythologies that command service to the poor and a rejection of wealth with anywhere near the strength and passion that the teachings of Jesus do.

Most Pagan-identified folks that I know personally who have devoted their lives to a cause tend to dedicate themselves to environmental or civil rights-related issues. They do so with the same degree of ethical motivation and spiritual dedication that I see among the Christians who work with the poor, but they do so in the name of the Earth and/or their Gods as opposed to Jesus Christ. My own activist path brought me to the forest years ago, and it was a natural and direct extension of my spiritual path at the time to be protecting the forest from loggers. It was a passion and drive that directly put my religious beliefs into practice, the belief that the Earth was sacred and needed to be protected. It was a passion, but not a calling. The Gods never insisted that I stay in the forest. They do, however, keep insisting that I work with the poor, and by extension of that insistence I find myself constantly working closely with others who are not only acting in accordance with the insistence of a different God, but who also have a solid text of quotes and reference points as to why they are commanded to serve the poor. I don’t have a comparable reference text. In many ways, my only true reference texts are contained in the reflections and thoughts of others and the constant signs and signals from the universe itself.

But in pondering the perceived lack of mythology/theology that could serve as guidance on this journey as someone who is operating on the basis of divine imperative, I’ve also come face-to-face with the other side of the coin: how this lack of relevant mythology can affect those who are on the receiving end of divine mercy.

In my experience, there are a much higher percentage of self-identifying Pagans in the homeless community than there are in the general population. While I would still say that a majority of the homeless population identifies as Christian, the amount of people on the street who subscribe to some sort of Pagan belief system is quite striking and somewhat surprising at first. It made perfect sense to me quite quickly, as it was easy to see how living on the physical and psychic margins of society would bring with it the tendency of adopting an earth-centered, polytheistic, and/or magical philosophy. But what is even more notable, and in time has become more and more relevant to me, is the way that the beliefs and practices of the two groups often blend together in the context of street life and the way that the two groups have found mutual agreement in ways that are quite atypical but accurately reflective of their situation. I equally seem to run across self-identified Pagans who embrace Jesus in the same manner that their Christian counterparts do, as well as many who considered themselves to be Christian and yet are accepting and often even participatory in the beliefs and practices of their Pagan friends and neighbors.

My friend Mary Ann, who lives in a symbiotic relationship with the riverbank, is one of the Pagans I know who has a deep love for and faith in Jesus. Early on in our friendship, I once asked her why.

“Well, there ain’t no pagan Jesus. at least not when it comes to looking after the poor,” she said. “I’m not saying that you can’t compare Jesus to some of the old gods in many ways, but I never heard of Osiris and Dionysis tending to the poor and oppressed, chastising the rich, specifically promising the persecuted an eternity in Heaven. Jesus has got my back. Who else has got my back like that? None of the other gods or spirits I talk to. They got my back for other reasons, but not because I’m poor. They don’t want to liberate me. They don’t inspire masses of others to fight oppression. Not like Jesus does.”

She had an important point, a point which related closely to my own musings around the spiritual nature of my work and what I was increasingly viewing as a theological hole of sorts in Pagan mythology around poverty and the poor. What Mary Ann spoke of not only pointed to that hole, but also reminded me in the instant of how Jesus is framed in both liberation theology and black theology. Mary Ann sought a deity of liberation, and found that energy to be strongest in her understanding of Jesus.

North bank of the Willamette river.

North bank of the Willamette river.

Not long after that encounter, I was on the opposite bank of the river when I came across another homeless friend, one I knew to be a regular at the local Methodist church. He was perched at the river, with flowers and what looked like salt his hand, and from where I stood ten feet back or so it appeared as though he was making offerings to the river. He turned around, saw me, and waved me over.

“What kind of pagan nonsense are you up to?” I teased.

Conestoga Hut

Conestoga Hut

“You’re not the first to ask,” he said. “I’ll just say this: you live our here long enough, and this place becomes alive in a way where you would have to be a fool to ignore it. The least I can do is acknowledge it.” That’s the other side of the reflection, I thought to myself. The missing theology from his own religion, which he supplemented with what he learned from the activities and beliefs of his Pagan peers. I saw this as the inverse of what both Mary Ann and I found to be missing in Pagan spirituality. His words reminded me immediately of conversations I’ve had with friends who identify as “Christo-Pagans”, who have told me that they walk that path mainly because the reverence of nature and nature spirits is for the most part absent from the theology and liturgy of Christianity.

It makes sense that ideological sticking points become rather irrelevant in the face of oppression, desperation, and survival. While Pagans living in housed communities often face the realities of Christian oppression on a regular basis, on the street everyone is equally subject to specific oppressive forces from outside the street community which act with no regard to creed. Those forces cause the community to unite and put differences aside just as much out of necessity as choice, but they put aside and embrace their differences in an honest and authentic manner. While a few homeless Pagans I know have very strong negative reactions to anything related to churches or Christianity, many do not view Christianity as an oppressive and harmful force in the way that seems to be the status quo among most housed Pagans. If anything, the churches are often the only institutions that help and protect them in the face of systematic oppression from both government and citizenry alike. Churches feed them, help to shelter them, provide clothing, toiletries, and other resources, and in Eugene most of them do so with no strings attached, no conversion attempts, and with a sincere respect for the fact that many of those they are serving may not be of the same faith. One of the churches in town housed a Pagan woman in a Conestoga hut for several months this past year. Not only did the pastor welcome the idea of a Solstice ritual in the parking lot, but he advertised the event on his congregational calendar.

I’ve basically been a polytheist since I was first old enough to understand the concept. I have never had either a significant interest in nor a significant resentment towards Christianity, save for an overall wariness and skepticism that I hold towards all institutional powers. Before I ever worked with the poor, I always regarded Jesus as one of a untold number of deities out there, one whose fan club seems to have missed the point of his teachings for the most part. But this work has brought me in contact with so many individuals and communities of faith that have not missed the point, and my experiences in their company have brought me a deep understanding of the energy of love that is Jesus and how it affects both those who serve the poor in his name and those who are oppressed and seek out his comfort. Working in such environments motivated by love and compassion also makes me strongly yearn for such a tradition of service to the poor in my own community. I realize that my experience in itself is most likely atypical and to an extent is a reflection of a community that is known for progressive ethics and religious diversity just as much as it is a testament to the power of those who truly follow the teachings of Jesus. But their example and their kinship helps me to fill the holes I found in my own theology, not so much filled through teachings of Jesus himself but from what I see and learn from those who reflect and emulate that energy in their words and actions and the love shown towards the poor.

While I have no desire to explore religious Christianity beyond the interactions that are already built into my present life, Teo Bishop’s recent piece about why he felt called back to Christianity spoke to me on a very deep level, and was a strong reminder of the sacred aspect of being in service to the poor. The moment that Teo describes in his interaction with a homeless woman, and the way that he was affected by that interaction is the kind of moment that I sometimes experience on a daily basis. And in the desperation and helplessness that I too often feel in those moments, often it is a specific taste, a specific energy that comes through. There is a current of surrender and desperation in those moments where you truly do give your heart, and the essence in that moment is incomparable to anything other than what I have come to understand as the love and energy that is Jesus.

A few days after I read Teo’s piece, I was riding my bike along an underpass when I saw two police officers in the process of rousting and citing a group of homeless campers. I remembered that the owner of the shopping complex next door had been regularly complaining to police about the homeless that take refuge under the bridge. As I stopped and approached to watch, someone came up behind me. I heard a man muttering softly as the police began to write another ticket.

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.”

And there it was, that energy again, that sentiment that has no other comparison. I tried to think of something else to say, but nothing came. In that moment, I was grateful for those words. They were words of hope in an otherwise hopeless moment, originally spoken by someone who I knew for certain had our backs in this.

The oldest house in town is not necessarily looking for attention. In contrast to some of the more lavish, well-known historical properties in the city, artfully restored Victorians that often function as bed-and-breakfasts or historical museums, the Daniel Christian house sits quite unassumingly on a quiet residential block just south of the downtown core, a mile or so inland from the Willamette River. The house blends in nicely amongst the curious variety of dwellings that surround it, and to the average passer-by, there is little about the house that suggests any historical or architectural significance.

I must have walked or biked past the house dozens of times without ever noticing it, until one day when a kitten stopped me in my path on the sidewalk in the middle of the block. I reached down to pet it and it ran up the porch step, daring me to follow. I stepped up onto the porch, scooped up the kitten, and found myself suddenly taking in my surroundings. This porch had a very different feel than the other houses I knew in this neighborhood. It felt… old. I glanced at the front door and noticed a sticker on the door stating that the building was on the National Register of Historic Places. There were four mailboxes next to the front door, indicating that the house was divided into residential apartments. I put down the kitten and thanked it for leading me to the front door. At that moment, one of the tenants walked up the porch steps and took out his key. I asked him if he knew the history of the building. “Its really old,” he said, obviously uninterested. “I don’t know much more than that.”

Daniel Christian House

Daniel Christian House

I snapped a photo of the house and walked a few blocks to the Lane County Historical Society, showed the photo to the woman behind the counter when I walked in, and within a few minutes I learned that not only was the Daniel Christian house the oldest remaining house in all of Eugene, but it was most likely the only frame house left standing from Oregon’s territorial era. Christian and his family arrived in Oregon in 1853 from Illinois and settled on a 209-acre donation land claim, a footprint which is now the heart of Eugene’s midtown business district. The Greek Revival-style farmhouse that bears his name was built by Christian himself in 1855, nine years after the city of Eugene was founded, and the surrounding land served as an apple orchard up until the turn of the century.

I left the Historical Society with a photocopy of a cadastral map from 1860, showing the original donation land claims that formed the City of Eugene. As I walked back to the house, I reflected on the fact that the dense urban neighborhood that I was passing through had once been an apple orchard anchored by a small, simple farmhouse. A significant portion of the land that was once Daniel Christian’s orchard is currently the site of the largest development project in the city’s history, a project that went forth despite sharp opposition from the community, and as I walked past the development I couldn’t help but to think that an apple orchard in that location would have been of much greater benefit to the neighborhood. I arrived back in front of the house, a house which I now knew had been standing for 158 years, and tried to picture in my head what it must have looked like standing alone, surrounded by farmland, with a clear view straight to the river.

Within that visualization, I immediately noted the fact that the Daniel Christian house was a good distance from the river. The yearly, variable flooding of the Willamette had been a persistent problem throughout the city’s history, especially for the early settlers. The original 1851 Eugene city plat had to be revised and moved inland after the first year due to flooding, and subsequent floods wiped out early settlement areas time and time again. As the town grew over the years in size, the property damage from each flood intensified, until the federal government began to harness the river through a series of dams starting in the early 1940s. While the river still floods occasionally, the water levels have never reached anything close to the levels of the pre-dam floods, and flood damage in the modern day has been very minimal. Most current residents have no memory of a time when the natural rhythm of the floodplain greatly affected the use and development of the riverfront areas, and very few remember back to a time when residents had to be evacuated due to flooding. This lack of memory has always concerned me, even before I was ever conscious of how specifically vulnerable this area is to a flood-related natural disaster.

When I first started observing and taking in the layout and architecture within specific neighborhoods in this town, I had noticed early on that most of the houses and buildings anywhere near the riverfront were of more recent construction than most of the surrounding areas, with older houses farther back surrounding the newer developments. There are very few structures near the riverfront that pre-date WWII, despite the fact that some of these neighborhoods were originally platted years before that, in contrast to other neighborhoods in the city where a significant majority of the houses standing were built the same year the subdivision was originally platted. I had learned from an old realtor that many of the pre-war houses had been either built on beams to withstand the flooding or built without any sort of foundations whatsoever, and most of the houses that survived all the old floods have been since demolished. A bank won’t finance a home without a foundation, which made many of the old homes impossible to sell in the modern day. A few of these homes still survive, standing reminders of a time when the neighborhood was often underwater, but even these few survivors are disappearing one by one. And yet, I thought to myself, if a dam failure triggered even a temporary return to the river’s natural floodplain, those few old houses would probably fare much better overall than anything built in the last seventy years. I doubted that most of the inhabitants of those newer houses knew the history of the land that their house was built on, despite the subtle clues in the surrounding architecture.

This bungalow (left), built in 1930 at the edge of the natural floodplain and lacking a foundation, was put up for sale last spring and then demolished last month (right) when a cash buyer could not be found.

This bungalow (left), built in 1930 at the edge of the natural floodplain and lacking a foundation, was put up for sale last spring and then demolished last month (right) when a cash buyer could not be found.

Standing in front of the Daniel Christian house, I reflected on the fact that this house had survived every flood from the time it was built up to the time the river was dammed. Hundreds of buildings were destroyed or washed away by floods over that hundred-year period, but this simple, inconspicuous house withstood them all. With flooding on my mind, I took out the donation land claim map from 1860, and as I found the location of the Christian land claim on the map I noticed something striking. The bend in the Willamette as drawn on the map did not match the current course of the river. While the current path of the river bends slightly north as it approaches the downtown area, the 1860 map illustrates the river sharply meandering north well past its current boundaries, channeling through a patch of land just above and over the present-day location of Autzen Stadium. I had heard it mentioned once that the flood of 1890 had altered the course of the Willamette, but I hadn’t a clue as to the location or severity of that alteration, and I had never given it much thought until that moment.

1860 Donation Land Claim map, illustrating a sharp river meander. The Daniel Christian land claim is outlined in red.

1860 Donation Land Claim map, illustrating a sharp river meander. The Daniel Christian land claim is outlined in red.

I took out my phone and pulled up a satellite map of the area, and compared the path of the river to the illustration of the 1860 map. In quickly tracing past and present shape of the river, suddenly the history and composition of the land in between the two paths made perfect sense. The 1890 flood had altered the channel at the point of the meander, cutting off the meander and forming a shallow oxbow lake around the river’s old path. Evidence of this former river channel could be seen on the current satellite map, in the form of ponds and sloughs still in its old path. I had already known that the land under and around Autzen Stadium had been undeveloped swampland that was previously used as a dumpsite, but why that swampiness existed in the first place was now clear. The swamp was created by the oxbow lake after the river changed its course.

Current map of downtown Eugene and the Willamette River. The red line indicates the location of the river channel prior to 1890.

Current map of downtown Eugene and the Willamette River. The red line indicates the location of the river channel prior to 1890.

I left the house that survived a hundred years’ worth of floods and proceeded towards the river in order to trace the river’s old path. I had walked and biked through the exact area countless times before, but my knowledge of the river’s past spurned a new sense of curiosity about the ponds and sloughs that once cradled the Willamette itself. Following the waterway, I tried to ignore the presence of the looming stadium as I followed the water, envisioning the river, the flood, and the swamp. I suppose it’s fitting, I thought to myself, that a team called the Ducks play in a stadium built on a swamp.

Although I’ve thought for years about the Willamette floodplane and the harnessing of the river, only recently have I really thought about the potential devastation to this area in the wake of a natural disaster, and tracing the pre-1890 path of the Willamette brought that reality home for me. Hurricane Katrina was a tragic modern lesson on the vulnerability of dams and levees in the face of a storm, a lesson which greatly raised my own awareness of development and disasters in relation to floodplains. During Katrina, the greatest amount of devastation occurred in the low-lying areas which were not fit for widespread development prior to modern engineering, engineering which in the end could not stand up to the power of nature. If dam failures allowed the Willamette to rise to its natural level, the greatest potential for devastation would also occur in the low-lying areas that were developed after the river was dammed. During Katrina, evacuees took refuge in the Superdome, which had been built upon higher ground. But in the event of a flood-related disaster in Eugene, Autzen Stadium may very well be underwater.

In 1890, the river changed its course on its own and significantly altered the natural landscape without any help from a natural disaster, and scientists have warned for years now that a natural disaster in this area is only a matter of time. The Willamette Valley sits atop the Cascadia Subduction Zone, which experts say is over a hundred years overdue for a major earthquake. In the past few years, concerns have been raised by scientists, journalists, and politicians about the potential of catastrophic dam failures on the Willamette and/or widespread devastation in the event of an earthquake or a tsunami. Although the Japanese tsunami of 2011 sparked a certain degree of awareness as to the vulnerability inherent in our location and infrastructure, little has been done overall to prepare for such a disaster on a local level. Public meetings are held to discuss the economic viability of long-term riverfront development projects as though our dams are impervious to the ways of nature, while no real time or effort is ever spent discussing the overall viability of the city itself in the event that even one of those dams were to fail. While information and education about the level of risk is occasionally available to those who deliberately seek it out, many members of this community are completely unaware of the likelihood of such a disaster occurring here as well as the severity of the impact that such an event will have.

I thought of the tenant I met outside the Daniel Christian house, who was completely uninterested as to the history of his own building. In the case of a low-level to moderate flood, he is most likely protected in his ignorance, as he just happens to live in a house that has withstood every flood in the city’s history. But if a major earthquake hits, triggering the 40-foot wall of water that experts fear it will, he will literally be in the same boat as the rest of us, no pun intended.

Many of us look to the land to teach us various internal and external lessons. And most of us look to what has been built before us in order to better understand who we were and are. But we sometimes overlook the idea that the objects and structures that we have built can also serve as powerful lessons about the land itself. Lessons that our ancestors knew but in the present-day we have forgotten, lessons that the land may not be able to tell us quite so clearly, especially when man-made alterations have transformed the historic layout of a landscape. The Willamette River, currently held back by over twenty dams, has been muzzled and cannot presently hint at the potential reaches of her natural floodplain. And yet the historic age of the buildings and their relative distance from the riverfront illustrate that reach in a way that the river cannot. Perhaps more significantly, the Daniel Christian house serves as an important physical marker, speaking to the boundaries of how far the water has risen in the floods of the past. And yet, while I am slightly comforted in my knowledge and understanding of the reaches of the natural floodplain and the history of the land, I also know that an earthquake-triggered flood may very well result in a flooding situation that will render these observations and lessons irrelevant. But at least I am aware of this inevitability, and I deeply understand that such a disaster is not a matter of if, but when. In the meantime, however, I am simply grateful for my constantly evolving relationship with the river.

Between Two Worlds

Alley Valkyrie —  September 27, 2013 — 24 Comments

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.

Depression-era Hooverville just outside of Portland, Oregon

Depression-era Hooverville just outside of Portland, Oregon

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.

whovillesignAlongside 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.

The second incarnation of Whoville on River Road in Eugene

The second incarnation of Whoville on River Road in Eugene.

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.

“The Parks Department may not want me here, but this land tells me otherwise.”

We were standing on the north bank of the Willamette River, where I had come down to check up on a friend who had lived on the river next to the boat landing for as long as I had known her. I had come to the riverbank bearing root beer, but Mary Ann met me at her entryway bearing bad news and a yellow piece of paper. Maintenance workers had just come through the area earlier in the afternoon, and the yellow paper had been left taped to her door. She was being evicted from her home.

North bank of the Willamette river.

North bank of the Willamette river.

I looked around, forgetting for a moment as I always did that her “home” was not a house in the traditional sense, but a primitive hut built from waddling and covered with a canvas tarp that was tucked away within the confines of a city-owned park. My experiences camping at various pagan festivals over the years had instilled in me a great appreciation for makeshift dwellings, especially for ones that were cleverly built and aesthetically pleasing, and hers was second to none in that regard. It was an extraordinary spot, and it was indeed her home in the strongest sense of the word. Literally built from scratch with her own two hands, her riverfront hobbit-hut was truly otherworldly, quietly hidden and secluded with the river as her only neighbor.

So secluded, in fact, that it had taken the parks department over a year to find her within the tangled overgrowth of the riverbank. But find her they finally did. And unlike a legal eviction from a “legitimate” residential dwelling, which allows for seven days and a judicial hearing, a legal eviction of a “homeless camp” from a city park grants neither adequate time to vacate nor any form of due process. Her hut was literally set to be bulldozed the next day, and she had no recourse. She also had nowhere else she felt she could go.

“This place is a sanctuary, and this land wants to protect me,” she said to me, tearfully. “This ground beneath my feet, it welcomes me here. We have a relationship, an understanding. I don’t care if they need to trim the blackberries. I am of the Earth and this is my home. I have a connection with this space. Myself, the trees, the bushes, the river. We get along, we are friends. Nobody bothers me here. This place wants me here. This is the only place I’ve ever felt such safety.”

I looked at her and realized at that moment that not only was she losing her home, she was also being severed from a deep and powerful spiritual connection that she had forged with this odd little patch of sand and brush. In the eyes of the parks department, she was simply another illegal camper who was squatting on public land and interfering with their futile attempts at controlling the blackberries. As I saw it, however, the home she had crafted and her connection to this place was nothing less than sacred. I looked at her again and realized I was gazing into the eyes of a fellow priestess who was facing the loss and destruction of her hand-built, self-defined sanctuary.

Sanctuary. I muttered the word under my breath. She was far from the first person to tell me that this specific strip of riverbank felt like an energetic sanctuary for the disenfranchised, but never before had I considered the issue while literally standing in the place in question. Sanctuary. I closed my eyes for a moment, cleared my mind, and allowed my inner awareness to tune into my surroundings. It felt calm, deep, rooted, potent.

I looked into the eyes of my friend once more, trying to comprehend in the moment what it could possibly be like to live in a blackberry thicket that swirled with such a force, and what it meant to develop such a deep relationship with one’s surroundings in a place such as this. I knew there was nothing more I could offer her at that moment other than understanding and sympathy, and the only thing I knew to do in the moment was to hug her as hard as I could. We said our goodbyes, and I climbed back up the ridge of the riverbank to the path above. Halfway up, I glanced back and over at her beautiful dwelling, soon to be demolished, and I felt a lump form in the back of my throat. That wasn’t just a homeless camp. I truly felt that her little spot was sacred ground.

As I walked home, my rage and sadness quickly transformed into an unshakable curiosity regarding the energetic resonance of that chunk of the riverbank and Mary Ann’s strong belief that the land specifically wanted to provide her sanctuary. I was reminded again that I had heard similar claims before, from people that weren’t nearly as spiritually attuned as my friend was. There were dozens of parks scattered throughout this city, countless hidden spots scattered up and down the riverbanks where one could make a temporary home. Why did people gravitate to this specific place? What is it about this place that feels welcoming and safe to those who are otherwise living in exile, despite the fact that people are rousted from here just as much as anywhere else? I tried my best not to dwell on it, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that there might be something more to it.

A few days later, I was having coffee with another friend when I mentioned my experience in the park and the unanswered questions that were still lingering.

“What is it about that place?” I asked her, not necessarily expecting an answer. “I can’t help but feel that there’s something specific about that spot that’s creating or contributing to a widely-sensed feeling of safety. Mary Ann’s been getting the message from the land directly since she was first drawn to that spot, and I sense that there’s a true authenticity to her connections and experiences. But then other folks, many who don’t subscribe to spiritual thinking and would scoff at the idea of talking to the trees, will still tell you that that there’s a “welcoming vibe” down on that part of the riverfront.”

She looked up. “Well, you know that’s where the old black settlement used to be, right?”

My friend had lived here for many years, and was an indispensable and often spontaneous source of local history. She immediately realized by the look on my face that I had no idea what she was talking about.

“There was a tent city on the riverbank sometime around World War II that existed as the only black community for several years. The neighborhood was eventually bulldozed in order to make way for the Ferry Street Bridge, and those who lived in the settlement were mostly forced out into the wetlands at the other end of town Some weren’t even given time to claim their possessions before their homes were destroyed. But for years before the bridge was built, the north bank was the only place that black folks were allowed to live, the only place where they were safe from harassment and left alone.”

“The only place they were allowed to live?” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.

“Well, yes,” she continued. “Back then, city limits ended at the river. The north bank was county land.” She paused. I stared at her, processing what I had just been told. We both started to speak at the same time. I let her go first.

“You do know that this used to be a sundown town, right?”

She had just answered the question I was about to ask, and I was suddenly hit with a burst of clarity. As a recent transplant that was still in the wee learning stages of understanding the history, politics and dynamics of this area, that one powerful piece of factual information immediately started to trickle its way into the various questions and thoughts about this area that I had been filing away in my head all this time.

I looked up at my friend and smiled. “You just gave me a real important piece,” I said to her. “Thank you.”

I had been aware of the overall history of sundown towns and their effects, but until that moment I hadn’t a clue that this liberal, Pacific Northwest college town, with its reputation as a hippie mecca and its emphasis on human rights and diversity, also had a notable history of racial discrimination. As a former New Yorker, one of the first things I noticed about Eugene was how overwhelmingly white the population was, but I had assumed it was mainly the result of the same discriminatory housing practices that were once widely practiced throughout the nation. But the newly-acquired knowledge that this town had a history of systematically excluding the entire black population from the city limits after sunset affected me almost instantly in my understandings and perceptions of this place. Not only was it simply important on its face in terms of my desire to understand the basic history of where I lived, but it provided a powerful and important historical context that was quite relevant in relation to the current patterns of exclusion and oppression that I had been observing and noting, and the ideas and questions that I had been tossing around and pondering in response to those observations.

I immediately thought back to Mary Ann and her sanctuary. The reason that Mary Ann and countless others hide out on the north bank of the river is because they are constantly subject to local laws and policies that have resulted in the systematic harassment, persecution, and exclusion of the homeless population from the city center. These exclusion policies and practices are numerous: ordinances that criminalize sleeping anywhere on public property, strictly enforced park curfews that prohibit people from gathering at night, a deliberate and complete lack of public benches combined with an ordinance that prohibits sitting on the sidewalk, a constitutionally-suspect judicial remedy known as the “exclusion zone,” and an infamous team of private security guards who are specifically tasked with forcing homeless people to move along.

dpsz

Especially at night, it is essentially illegal to exist in the downtown area if you have nowhere else to go at night, and choosing to willfully remain in the downtown area is to risk arrest, assault, or worse. These various laws and strategies create the effect of a sundown town for anyone who lacks a home. The similarity had never been lost on me, but it took on a much stronger significance for me now that I knew that this place actually had been a sundown town. I had been criticizing and speaking out against these policies without ever knowing or understanding the degree to which this city had a history of discrimination and exclusion, a history that not only is unknown to most, but has arguably been effectively and deliberately erased by forty years’ worth of liberal rhetoric that has consistently projected the image that Eugene has always been a haven for diversity and tolerance.

I then thought about the history of that stretch of the riverbank, and the similarities in the two narratives, historic and present, as they related to that specific area. There have been countless tent communities and temporary homesteads erected along that stretch over the years, inhabited by folks who had been driven out from the city center, and eventually they were generally all subject to the same fate in the form of a bulldozer, often without any notice or warning. The same exact fate, I now knew, that another community of makeshift homesteads had succumbed to over a half-century ago in nearly the exact spot. Another community that was forced to retreat to this area and build their own huts and shanties after being systematically denied the right to live within the city limits.

I recognized that the knowledge and recognition of these historic connections and patterns was an essential part of my ongoing process of forging a deeper relationship with the land, and in developing a more solid understanding of the habits and tendencies of both people and place. I couldn’t define exactly what these connections meant in the large sense of that process, but I understood exactly why I was led to discover them as I did. As someone who has long been committed to fighting for justice, stumbling upon such ugly yet important truths about this town’s discriminatory past only strengthened my commitment to recognizing and standing up to oppression in all its insidious forms.

A few months later, I finally found Mary Ann on the riverbank again, a few hundred yards upstream from the spot where her hut had been demolished. Her new place was further hidden away and nowhere near as enchanting as her previous spot. A simple tent had replaced her former hut of sticks. “I don’t see the point right now,” she told me. “I’m still too angry. I don’t want to start over. For all I know I’ll be evicted from here in a week. They don’t understand that I’m supposed to be here. I don’t know how to make them understand that the land wants me here.”

I told her what I had learned about the history of this area. “I kept thinking about your feeling of sanctuary,” I said. “And I can’t help but to keep going back to the historical parallels as a reference point, and then bounce right back to thinking about your sense of this place.”

I may have been fascinated by it all, but she didn’t look the slightest bit surprised. “What have I said again and again? This piece of land doesn’t believe in exclusion,” she told me. “This place protects the oppressed. I know that, I told you that. I don’t need to dwell on why it is. It just is.”

I smiled and nodded. I wasn’t about to argue.

Perhaps that stretch of the riverbank is exactly as Mary Ann says it is, and the spirits of that land truly and simply wish to protect those who are oppressed and excluded. Perhaps they’ve always done that, and it was my job to pick up on a small piece of that pattern. Perhaps the history of that spot as a sanctuary for those who have been excluded has left a subtle psychic echo that many happen to pick up on, in a wide variety of strengths that range from “feeling safe vibes” to the absolute steadfast religious belief that the river and the trees want to shelter and protect the oppressed. And perhaps there are no true connections at all, and the entirety of my observations amount to nothing more than pure coincidence. Perhaps the belief among many that the area offers them safety is purely in their heads. It could be that its nothing more than a matter of simple location that accounts for the similarity between the history of that spot and the current usage as it relates to those who have sadly experienced exclusion and oppression throughout the years.

What I do know is that the true value of the lesson has very little to do with any one definitive answer, and much more to do with illuminating and reinforcing the importance and power of knowing the various histories of the places in which we inhabit and interact. I find that often, hints from the land itself will point me straight to the answers, the history that you need. Other times, these hints serve as a caution and reminder as to the dangers of forgetting that history, and in the importance of seeking out and researching patterns and connections.

I consider the stories that make up our history to be sacred, and to learn about, research, remember, and retell such stories not only serves to honor those who actually lived those histories, but it also ensures that if and when we ever find ourselves in patterns of repetition, we carry within us important pieces of our collective memory and experience that can serve as a point of reference and reflection.

The Willamette Valley stretches over 200 miles north-to-south along the Willamette River in Western Oregon. Cradled by mountain ranges to the east and west, the valley branches out northwards from the mountains outside of Eugene up through Salem and then past Portland, where the Willamette River meets the Columbia River at the Washington border. The valley is renowned for its rich and fertile soil, a result of volcanic glacial deposits from the Missoula Floods at the end of the last ice age, and the area is world-famous for its lush, old-growth forests as well as its agricultural output.

A view of the Willamette valley from the top of Spencers Butte in Eugene.

A view of the Willamette Valley from the top of Spencers Butte in Eugene.

The Willamette Valley is also world-famous for its prevalence and severity of hay-fever allergies. The valley registers the highest grass pollen counts in the nation on a regular basis, and it was recently stated that Eugene in particular has the highest grass pollen counts in the world. The severity of the pollen varies seasonally as well as yearly, but its especially high throughout May and June, and on the worst days many do not even leave their house due to breathing difficulties. Visitors to the area are often surprised to find themselves violently sneezing out of nowhere, especially if they don’t normally suffer from hay-fever back home where they live. Local residents enjoy pointing out the fact that nobody is immune from the effects of the pollen. Many are often quick to share a well-known local myth in order to drive home the severity of allergy season in the Willamette Valley.

I initially heard the myth on my very first visit to the Pacific Northwest, long before I ever called the Willamette Valley home. I was sitting at a counter in a restaurant just outside of Eugene, my backpack sitting next to me. I started to sneeze profusely, and the man sitting next to me glanced over at me in my sinus-based misery. “You know, ‘Willamette’ is an Indian word meaning ‘valley of sickness’ or something close to that,” he said to me. “The allergies were so bad here that when white folks first came over the [Oregon] Trail, the Indians warned ‘em not to settle here. They thought that we were crazy for doing so.”

Wpdms_shdrlfi020l_willamette_valleyThe story immediately sounded suspect to me. At the time, I knew nothing of the history of the Willamette Valley, but I did know that far too often, “history” that references Native people is anything but truthful or accurate. As a product of American public schools, I was taught for years on end that Columbus “discovered” America and that the Pilgrims and Indians gathered for a happy Thanksgiving feast. Growing up in the NYC area, I was taught as accepted “fact” that Peter Minuit “purchased” Manhattan from a local tribe for $24. Stories such as these are accepted as “history” to many, and yet they are well-known to be heavily sanitized and mythologized in order to de-emphasize the oppression and colonialism that are central to their true history. I had a hunch at that moment in the restaurant that the “valley of sickness” tale I had just been told was nothing more than sanitized mythology in the same vein as Columbus or Minuit, and yet it was obvious by his telling of the tale that the man next to me believed it as factual truth and fully expected me to believe it as well.

A few years later, after I moved to Eugene, I immediately started to hear variations of the “valley of sickness” tale on a regular basis, told by people from all walks of life. There were many slight variations of the myth, as might be expected with any folklore. Often I heard it told as the valley of “death” as opposed to “sickness”. Once in a while, someone would say that “the Indians nicknamed this the valley of sickness”, as opposed to claiming that the word “Willamette” itself literally translates as such. In some versions, the Indians left and/or didn’t want to live here because of the pollen, and other times they just warned white settlers not to settle here. The basic story is always the same, however. And as opposed to commonly-held beliefs around Columbus, I never heard anyone refute nor even question the “valley of sickness” tale.

After hearing several versions of the tale within the first few months of my living here, it occurred to me more and more that not only was this tale most likely false, but that I was quite disconnected from the history of this valley that I chose as home. Prior to moving to Oregon, I had lived my entire life within a 100-mile radius of New York City, and I was quite well-versed in the history of the New York area, from the landing of the Mayflower through the present. That knowledge, especially as it relates to the land itself, became central to my spiritual exploration and practice when I lived on the East Coast. Researching and examining the history of place in relation to the activities, energies and present tendencies within that place was a source of constant fascination for me, and became essential to my practice in terms of navigating a dense urban landscape from an energetic perspective. Here in Oregon, however, while I had a decent understanding of the local culture, I knew nothing of the actual history of either Eugene in itself or the Willamette Valley as a whole. I felt a need to connect to both the timeline-based history of this valley as well as to the land itself, and I decided to start educating myself in local history using the “valley of sickness” tale as a starting point.

“I knew nothing of the actual history of either Eugene in itself or the Willamette Valley as a whole. I felt a need to connect to both the timeline-based history of this valley as well as to the land itself.”

I broke down the tale in order to identify the basic alleged facts within the story. If any or all parts of the tale have any truth to them, then any or all of the individual facts within the story need to carry some truth:

  • That high pollen counts were an issue in the 1850s.
  • That the native people who inhabited the land prior to white settlement were adversely affected by the pollen.
  • That “willamette” is a native word that translates to “valley of sickness.”
  • And/or that “willamette” does not specifically translate as such but the native inhabitants also gave the valley another nickname that translated to “valley of sickness.”
  • And/or that the native inhabitants discouraged white settlers from settling in the area due to the pollen.
  • That the native inhabitants left because of all the pollen and related sickness.
  • And/or the native people never lived here in large numbers in the first place because of all the pollen.

With this outline as a guide, I immersed myself in both the history of the Willamette Valley as well as its present conditions. And indeed, I learned quickly that the “valley of sickness” tale was a multi-layered falsehood that among other things served to deny and mask the injustices done to the native inhabitants of this area. The truth itself did not surprise me as much as how easy the truth was to find for anyone who cared to look for it. A few books combined with a few conversations gave me all the answers I needed.

Prior to white settlement, the Willamette Valley was originally inhabited by the Kalapuya, a semi-nomadic tribe who migrated within the valley for centuries before Europeans ever set foot in Oregon. Lewis and Clark first passed through the Willamette Valley in 1806, and the fur trappers and missionaries came through the area soon thereafter, bringing with them smallpox, measles, and other diseases that the Kalapuya had no immunity to. These diseases ravaged the Kalapuya population through the mid-1800’s, with some sources estimating that over 90% of the Kalapuya had died by the time that the first wave of white settlers came through the Willamette Valley from the Oregon Trail in the early 1850’s.

The remaining Kalapuya referred to the Willamette Valley as the “valley of sickness” after the settlers came, but it was due to smallpox, not hay-fever. Some of the remaining Kalapuya may have migrated elsewhere on account of the widespread sickness, but the rest were removed to a reservation in 1855. The word “Willamette” itself derives from a Chinook word, and there is no definitive record as to its precise meaning. Most historians and scholars agree that it most likely referred to the water and/or specifically the river, and that the word pre-dates the smallpox epidemic and has nothing to do with sickness or pollen.

The pollen issue itself is a separate piece of the puzzle, where the changing terrain of the land itself comes into play. Most significant in terms of disproving the “valley of sickness” tale is the fact that the highly elevated pollen counts that cause such severe allergies in the Willamette Valley are a modern phenomenon that is the result of widespread industrial agriculture as opposed to a natural product of the native ecosystem.

The native terrain of the Willamette Valley was mostly composed of prairie-savannas and wetlands, with a mix of surrounding coniferous forests. The Kalapuya were hunter-gatherers, not farmers, and did not plant or cultivate crops. Various histories of the Kalapuya make no mention of excessive pollen or hay-fever, and there is nothing specific that stands out in the botanical and/or ecological composition of the Willamette Valley prior to white settlement that would give cause for the excessive pollen counts, especially such excessive pollen from any one plant source such as grass.

Rainbow in Willamette Valley

Rainbow in Willamette Valley

In contrast, the present-day Willamette Valley is a major agricultural center, and commercial non-native grass seed is by far the most prevalent crop. Grass seed production in the Willamette Valley was introduced in the 1920’s, and currently the valley produces nearly two-thirds of the nation’s grass seed. Production in acreage recently peaked at nearly 500,000 acres, and currently nearly 1,500 farms are devoted to grass seed, many of which are owned by national and multinational seed companies. The highest grass pollen counts in the world and the subsequent hay-fever allergies are essentially a direct result of a $250 million-dollar industry that is significantly shielded from blame by the widespread proliferation of the “valley of sickness” tale. But due to the commonly-held belief that residents of the Willamette Valley have been sneezing nonstop since the 1850s, a typical sneezer in Eugene is often completely unaware of the fact that the elevated pollen levels that cause such severe allergies are mainly caused by commercial grass seed production as opposed to by the local trees and plants in the immediate area.

20130704_114249As an outsider in this community, it was initially hard for me to understand why the myth was so prevalent and widespread despite easily accessible information that disproves the story entirely. It was also hard for me to understand the mindsets of several people I encountered who were very aware that at least one or more core factual elements of the tale were untrue. When I asked them if they ever corrected people on the facts, most of them admitted that they did not. “The story is appealing”, one woman told me, defending her silence. “I don’t want to be the bearer of bad vibes.” I disagreed strongly with her stance, but over time I understood her point more than I wished to admit. In a town full of back-to-the-land hippies and leftist intellectuals who are often all-too caught up in a culture of positive affirmations and passive-aggressive niceties, nobody wants to be the one bringing up genocide in the middle of a barbecue.

But over the years, when I look deep into the eyes of the myth itself time and time again, as well as into the eyes of the people who tell it, I have come to understand its appeal within the context of the local culture, especially given the fact that most of those who tell it are white, middle-class folks who are either the descendants of pioneers or transplants from other parts of the country. The myth serves as an easy explanation for the pollen issues, and it connects modern inhabitants of the Willamette Valley with the native people who lived here before them. There’s a sense of comfort inherent in the idea that even indigenous tribes hundreds of years ago suffered from hay-fever as people do today. Many also feel that the myth demonstrates the wisdom of the native inhabitants, and they feel that by telling the tale they are honoring that wisdom. “The Native Americans were right,” a friend said to me recently, in the midst of a hay-fever spell during one of the highest pollen measurements on record. “They warned us not to settle here, and man were they right.”

And yet, the myth is oppressive and damaging on many levels. The myth falsely explains away the modern suffering of those who benefited from colonialism at the expense of the truth behind the suffering of those who were oppressed by the colonizers. Not only does the “valley of sickness” tale dishonor the legacy and memory of the Kalapuya by whitewashing the truth of their history and suffering, but the myth also dishonor the spirits and ancestors of this valley that lived and experienced that truth. The fact that the myth also protects multinational agribusinesses whose profit-driven actions wreak havoc on the health of the people in addition to disrupting the native ecosystem is simply the icing on the cake, especially in an area where local values tend to be left-leaning and anti-corporate in principle.

Deconstructing this myth taught me many lessons, and gave me many insights into the local history and culture that have been invaluable to me ever since. More importantly, my questions regarding the myth not only revealed to me my own disconnect with the history of the land, but the fact that most who live here are ignorant of their own history, both the history of their ancestors as well as the history of this valley itself. My disconnect was due to being an outsider, and to some extent it is the outsider’s perspective that inspired me to develop the relationships and understandings that I have with both the land and the culture of the Willamette Valley. Researching the myth also brought me in contact for the first time with the energies and spirits of this land, a relationship which has not only greatly deepened over time, but one that has become essential to my work as a community activist and amateur historian.

“Researching the myth also brought me in contact for the first time with the energies and spirits of this land, a relationship which has not only greatly deepened over time, but one that has become essential to my work as a community activist and amateur historian.”

It’s currently allergy season, and I’ve heard the “valley of sickness” tale twice this week alone. And while I can’t prevent its telling, nor can I necessarily deflate its ubiquity, I can strongly dent its armor in subtle ways. But rather than lecturing people on genocide, oppression, and whitewashed history, I’ve found that the most effective method of drowning out such sanitized mythology is to simply tell a new story, one based in truth and fact.

And so I have become the awkward guest at the dinner party, so to speak, but I keep it short, sweet, and easy to digest. Whenever I hear the myth mentioned in my presence, my response has become almost automated. “That story is bullshit. The Kalapuya were sick with smallpox, not hay-fever, and pollen wasn’t an issue in the valley until agribusiness moved in. If you don’t like the hay-fever, blame the grass seed companies, but retelling that story only serves to disrespect the original inhabitants of the valley.”

Once in a while, in the midst of debunking the myth, I often sense something in the wind. I take it as a reminder that the land is always listening.

My phone buzzed around 1:15 in the morning, a text message from an unfamiliar number. “The cops just woke us up and they are arresting us for sleeping,” the message said.

“Where are you?” I texted back.

Alley Valkyrie. Photo by Rob Sydor.

Alley Valkyrie. Photo by Rob Sydor.

I wasn’t sure who it was on the other end of the line, but it didn’t really matter. People are arrested on a regular basis for sleeping in Eugene, and my determination to fight these laws and policies has resulted in many late-night texts such as this one. Countless folks on the streets have my phone number, and they know I will always respond to an emergency, no matter the day or time. Given the struggles of their daily existence, making myself available in this regard is the very least I can do.

I sat up in bed and started to look around the room for my shoes. I glanced out the window momentarily. It was rainy, windy, and bitterly cold. Sleeping outside in this weather was punishment enough; to be arrested for it was unconscionable. I fumbled around for my keys but then hesitated, waiting for a reply. There was no point in getting into the car until I knew where I was going. A few minutes went by before the phone buzzed again.

“We’re under the bridge at Sixth Street. They’re leaving a few of us here with the dogs and taking the rest of us to jail. I have to put the phone away now.”

Although my instinct was to rush right over, I knew that I couldn’t change the current course of events at that point. The bridge was a few miles away, and they would already be en route to jail by the time I arrived. I still didn’t know who was texting me, but everyone who was currently being arrested would appear in the jail inmate database within the hour. I would be able to figure it out in the morning, and nothing could really be done until then. In the meantime, given the fact that the next day would be yet another inevitably stressful chapter in the fight for the right to sleep, I needed to try to get some sleep myself.

Campers under the bridge where they were arrested

Campers under the bridge where they were arrested.

I got back into bed, closed my eyes, and reflected on the fact that to be able to simply put one’s head down and drift off without having to fear being woken up and dragged off to jail is a privilege that most of us take for granted, and a privilege that thousands of people in my community do not have. In Eugene, Oregon, if you don’t have a home, its literally illegal to sleep.

For two years now, I have been on the front lines of a battle concerning homelessness that has raged for a generation in this town, a debate that has pitted businessmen against activists, police against lawyers, and neighbors against neighbors.

And from the front lines, I refuse to yield in my steadfast belief that socioeconomic status should not affect fundamental human rights. From where I stand, there is no debate. Everyone has the right to exist, and everyone has the right to sleep. Nobody is “less than” anyone else. Everyone is inherently a reflection of divinity, and everyone deserves to be treated with dignity and respect, regardless of whether you sleep in a mansion or in the bushes.

The issues and debates around homelessness in Eugene have literally torn this community apart, a community whose reputation for contentiousness is as old as the trees that serve as shelter for those who have no other option. There are many in this town from all walks of life who question Eugene’s laws and policies towards the homeless from both a human rights perspective as well in terms of fundamental constitutional rights. However, despite widespread public awareness, consistent news coverage, a federal court decision that declared such arrests unconstitutional, and involvement from national organizations such as the ACLU and the NLCHP, the arrests still continue. And despite their sympathetic overtures when asked to comment on the issue, for thirty years now local officials have been unwilling to overturn or modify the laws that literally criminalize the existence of anyone and everyone who can’t afford a place to live.

Over the years, homeless advocates had tried numerous times to change the laws with no success, and most of those who had fought the city in the past had given up long ago. The current crop of advocates, however, many who were first brought together through the Occupy movement, were not so easily discouraged. We publicly vowed not to quit fighting until everyone had the right to sleep, and our presence has been felt and noticed at every City Council meeting since October of 2011. After a year-and-a-half of relentless lobbying, our dedication and determination had finally resulted in the Eugene City Council reluctantly agreeing to revisit the issue at a work session in the near future, but given the failed attempts of the past, few had hope that anything substantive would come of it.

I woke up at dawn the next morning to learn that eight people were arrested under the Ferry Street Bridge the night before, ranging in age from 18 to 37 years old. They were held in jail for nearly 12 hours, pled no contest to illegal camping the following afternoon, and were fined $100 each with no consideration given to the fact that they spent the night in jail.

Upon their release, I met up with them, got their side of the story, and then hit the ground running. I contacted both elected officials and media outlets, rattling off facts, figures, and circumstances. Even in Eugene, arresting eight people in one place for sleeping and holding them overnight was unprecedented, and I wasn’t about to let the story go untold.

In the midst of my frenzied afternoon, I ran into a close friend and fellow activist downtown. Upon telling her what happened the night before, she looked at me and smiled calmly.

“This is a gift”, she said. “This is a gift.”

I paused for a moment, and let her words sink in. I understood immediately what she meant. As appalling as the circumstances of the incident were, the timing could not be better. The Council’s scheduled work session on the camping ban was only two weeks away. Perhaps these arrests would shock the conscience of the Council enough to finally take action. Perhaps enough public outrage over this incident would finally pressure the powers that be into doing the right thing.

Under the bridge where the arrests were made.Under the bridge where the arrests were made.

Under the bridge where the arrests were made.

The Ferry Street arrests, as they came to be known, became the talk of the activist community for the next two weeks. A few days after the incident, I wrote an open letter to the Mayor and City Council, outlining in detail exactly what happened under the bridge and pointing out the numerous violations of law and policy that occurred the night of the arrests. The following Monday, four of the arrestees spoke in front of a packed City Council meeting at my urging, testifying as to their experience being arrested and the fact that they had absolutely nowhere to sleep. It was evident from watching the expressions of several of the Councilors that they were genuinely affected by what they heard, and afterwards the Mayor stated that the arrests were unacceptable in her opinion and that an investigation was warranted. Media coverage, including letters to the editor from several angry citizens and a write-up of the incident in the Eugene Weekly, added to the pressure that had been building for the past eighteen months.

By the time the Council met for their work session two weeks later, nearly everyone in town had been made aware of the incident. The room was packed with homeless advocates, concerned citizens, and numerous homeless members of our community whose daily lives were severely affected by a law that kept them from sleeping soundly at night. News cameras lined the back of the room, and reporters from various media outlets hovered over their notebooks in anticipation.

Eugene City Council work session.

Eugene City Council work session.

And after thirty years of criminalizing homelessness, it took the Eugene City Council only ninety minutes to unanimously agree to draft a temporary ordinance that would allow legal camping on designated public parcels of land.

The audience was in shock. None of us could quite believe what had just happened. The work session was adjourned, and as the room cleared I was immediately bombarded by friends, acquaintances, fellow advocates and news reporters.  “I’m not sure what to say right now,” I told them, walking away towards the door. “What just happened speaks for itself. You don’t need a quote from me.”

I needed to process. I needed to breathe. Most importantly, I needed a moment to myself. I stepped outside, away from the crowd. I was shaking, on the verge of tears. I had poured my heart and soul into this, fighting with ever fiber of my being for nearly two years, and yet the enormity of what just happened was simply too much for me at that moment.

While struggling to regain composure, a homeless friend of mine came up next to me and offered me a cigarette. I wasn’t a smoker but at that moment I took her up on it. As I lit up, she looked me straight in the eye. “What drives you?” she asked me. “What drives you to fight so hard? Why do you care so much?”

“Because we’re no different, you and me,” I replied. “The only thing that separates us is luck and circumstance. We are equals, we are equally sacred. And yet I enjoy privileges that I never earned, while you are stigmatized and treated as less than human through no fault of your own. And I can’t sleep at night knowing that you’re not allowed to do the same. It haunts me to the core.”

She hugged me, long and hard. “I guess you can fight City Hall after all,” she said to me, smiling.

I looked back towards the crowd. The reporters were still inside waiting for me to come back. I paused a moment, looked at my friend, and realized that I had a few quotes for them after all. I finished my cigarette, wiped my eyes, and walked back into the building.