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.