Over the past three months, I, and several of our staff, have spent over one hundred hours meeting with business leaders, service providers, city and county staff, and experts from across the country on the issue of homelessness and criminal activity.
While many of us have seen the unsanctioned homeless encampments growing across the community, many do not see the crime that is present around some of these camps. Since last year, the volume of concerns coming from the business community regarding criminal activity on their properties has grown exponentially. A large portion of these complaints are on or near properties where unsanctioned camps have gone unregulated.
Let me be clear, I do not believe all homeless individuals are criminals. I also know that there are several homeless individuals in our community who are victims of crime, just as our businesses and community members have been. I do not believe the state of being homeless should be considered a crime. The crime I am referring to is not the lone act of sleeping in public. The crimes our businesses have been enduring are far more serious- theft, vandalism, assault, intimidation, gun violence- and it is impacting their ability to keep their businesses running successfully and maintain a safe environment for their employees.
The Eugene Chamber is committed to finding solutions to these critical issues.
Our ultimate short-term goal is to stop the crime and find appropriate places for individuals to shelter. These two things are equally important, and we cannot wait for a perfect solution to one before we address the other.
In the long-term, our focus is on increasing housing options for individuals in our community, as well as increasing the critical services needed to help individuals truly get well while we move upstream and turn off the “spigot” of new individuals entering homelessness in our community.
To accomplish these goals, we strongly believe we need a shift in our way of thinking about and approaching this issue as a community. Historically businesses have been pitted against homeless individuals and advocates, suggesting there are two sides to these issues and that we are not working towards the same goal of ending homelessness. We have to start looking at helping businesses struggling with the impacts of criminal activity and illegal camping as a long-term solution to our current homeless challenge.
The businesses I have spoken to over the past few months are at a true tipping point- several having serious conversations about leaving our community. A rough calculation of the number of jobs represented by the employers I have spoken to is over 500. That means 500 individuals at risk of losing their jobs- which is a leading cause of homelessness in our community and across the country. If we truly want to make strides in solving our homeless challenge in Eugene, we have to prioritize going upstream to prevent future homelessness by saving and growing jobs and keeping people off the streets in the first place.
Addressing the immediate criminal activity impacting businesses today IS a long-term solution to solving homelessness. It must be prioritized.
As a community, I believe it is a noble goal to be the place where individuals get well. We are a compassionate community and can improve our systems to help those that want to be helped. But we must draw a line at those that are refusing services and are committing crimes on our business properties and in our neighborhoods. We can’t do everything, and we can’t do anything for those who don’t want to access those resources or follow the rules that we all must abide by.
This issue is a business issue. It is also bigger than anything one government entity or a network of nonprofits can solve alone. This is an issue that is going to take much bigger thinking, more voices, and difficult conversations for us to truly overcome. Addressing this issue is a top priority for the Eugene Chamber and we are prepared to lead the business voice to the table as we explore real solutions, together, as a community.
In the past year, our chamber members and staff have experienced more challenges than some of us have seen in a decade—or for others—a lifetime. Those challenges came in the shape of temporary closures, strict health regulations, battling obstacles on the home-front of virtual learning, sick family members and financial burden. Now here is where you think I insert some line about how enduring these challenges will make us all stronger. While I do think that is true, I would be lying if I didn’t admit that it has also made us all more tired and concerned, and anxious as well.
As I contemplate how I am going to find the energy to take on the work of 2021, I find myself reminiscing about the past twelve months and doing my best to look for a silver lining. How far have we come? What have I learned that I want to bring with me in this pursuit for a better normal? Spoiler alert: the lessons are aplenty. Here are a few that will stick with me.
Admit that we have room to grow.
Managing an organization during a pandemic is harder than anything I could have imagined. Add the layers of social unrest and political tension and it feels downright impossible at times. As a relatively new CEO, I didn’t have a ton of prior experience to lean on when it came to dealing with the stress and complicated logistics we have navigated this year, but I am not sure even the most seasoned leaders would claim they were adequately prepared. What I have learned in the past six months would have taken me years in a normal environment, and yet I still have room to grow.
Strive to be proactive.
In a world that feels stuck in “reactive mode,” we have had to push ourselves to find where we can be proactive. For us, that meant taking our role as community leaders seriously when it came to shifting to a virtual, work-from-home world; encouraging businesses and community members to wear masks and follow safety protocols, speaking out about racial injustice and criminal behavior, and proactively reaching out to our business community to provide advice and guidance on navigating the challenges of this year. We stood up for businesses when they needed help and we pulled together business leaders when the community needed them.
Focus on what we can control.
More than one time during the wild ride that has been my first three years as a CEO, I have felt engulfed in chaos. Everywhere I turned was another challenge that felt beyond my experience and out of my control. Thanks to great mentors in my corner, I was encouraged early to “focus on what I could control.” How am I treating my people? How am I taking care of myself? How are we showing up for our members? Focusing on those things helped us grow closer as a staff and helped us connect and provide support for our members on a level we have never been able to in the past. Those questions helped bring purpose and clarity to our role in this pandemic.
We know things will not be going back to the “way they always were.” That reality is worth both mourning and celebrating. There are things that we will miss desperately and others that have desperately needed to change. The work ahead feels daunting, but after this year, I think we have many reasons to be hopeful for what we are capable of accomplishing together.