Home National housing Eugene homeless advocates urge city not to increase street use fines

Eugene homeless advocates urge city not to increase street use fines

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Advocates for homeless people have called on Eugene officials not to approve an increased penalty tied to street use rules, saying it would further criminalize homelessness.

Staff are asking City Council to add an increased penalty for willful violations of rules that restrict the use of streets from sidewalk to sidewalk for vehicles. The rules apply to traffic lanes and on-street parking spaces.

“We’re seeing people piling stuff up in the street,” public works director Matt Rodrigues said during a March 14 work session.

It’s a mix of people who violate city code, he said, and includes contractors, people installing structures for living on the streets and businesses installing items to keep homeless people from living. build shelters.

Police have found that the current maximum fine of $250 isn’t enough of a deterrent or a reason for people to immediately respond to safety concerns, Rodrigues said. The increased penalty of up to $500 or 10 days in jail would apply if someone refuses to address a safety issue after an officer has formally told them there is a danger.

Lt. Doug Mozan added that this would give the city the ability to move objects that create danger, which he said staff cannot currently do.

On Monday night, lawyers spent most of a 30-minute public hearing questioning the need for the new sentence and said it would hit homeless people the most who already can’t afford the fine. maximum.

“People who don’t have adequate shelter right now can’t afford another fine, another judgment on their credit report, another round of jail time, and another round of replacing their few possessions. so they can start over,” said Sarah Johnson, who works as a housing and shelter specialist for Eugene and Lane County, but spoke as a private citizen.

Councilors expressed a mix of opinions in March and Monday.

Officials agreed that the issue in question was a serious safety issue, but were split on whether the enhanced penalty would be an effective solution, particularly when the person violating the code is not housed.

They will consider the proposal again on Wednesday and could act at that meeting.

What would change?

City code limits street use between the curbs to vehicular traffic other than pedestrians crossing the street at crosswalks and trash cans and recycling containers at certain times for collection when not there are no bike lanes.

Recently, the city has received more service requests related to these restrictions, Rodrigues said.

Mozan clarified that the violations fall into three main areas:

  • Construction companies and other contractors
  • People build shelters because they are homeless
  • Companies offering items to discourage people from building shelters

Police saw things like steel beams on the road, Mozan said.

Councilman Randy Groves said there were structures built for the shelters spilling out onto the street “everywhere” in his neighborhood, which covers much of west Eugene.

“It’s pleading for someone to be hurt or killed,” he said.

When people break the code, the police can issue a citation.

The code does not apply to state-registered vehicles, Rodrigues said, whether they are moving or parked.

City: Current maximum not dissuasive enough

But the $250 maximum fine has not been enough to compel people to comply, staff said, and increase the possible fine and add the possibility of jail time if someone ignores a warning would be a better deterrent.

It also gives the city the ability to remove the hazard.

“If my only recourse is to write a ticket, I don’t actually have the recourse to move things around,” Mozan said.

He added that the idea was not so much to arrest someone as to gain the ability to move things, and a memo says staff anticipate they will make something a willful violation” with parsimony”.

Councilor Mike Clark said it was “high time” officials gave police another tool to use.

“I would suggest that very few people will actually be put in jail, as opposed to the officer having the ability to say, ‘You have to move out now or I’m going to have to take you to jail,'” he said during the working session.

At that meeting in March, other councilors agreed the road features posed a safety risk and the city needed to address it, but they weren’t sure the proposal was the best way to do it. — or a solution that their constituents would support.

“I have to be very honest,” Syrett added. “I don’t know if that would be the solution they would support.”

Councilor Matt Keating said he was ‘all for reigning in on repeat offenders’ but asked if the city could explore an alternative that ‘doesn’t break the banks of those who don’t have a bank or criminalize their behavior”.

He added on Monday that while judges can sentence someone to community service or impose a lower fine, he has some reservations about increasing the maximum sentence and adding prison terms. without a “robust community service component”.

Eugene ‘can’t go back to criminalizing sleep’

Most of the public comments even went beyond Keating’s concerns.

While two people testified in favor of the harsher penalty, one of whom said the city had been too lenient and another was neutral, the rest of the 20 people who spoke out were against the proposal.

Concerns centered on people who live in roadside structures or place objects around the vehicles they live in, having nowhere to go and being more likely to suffer consequences when being poor alone is not a crime.

Commentators urged officials to support people instead of criminalizing them further.

Outreach specialist and housing navigator Jeff Wolfe said he understands people want the streets to be clean, but the city “can’t go back to criminalizing sleep” and creating more barriers.

Heather Marek, an attorney with the Oregon Legal Center’s Lane County Legal Aid Office, said existing laws already empower officials to respond to road hazards.

She also expressed concerns about officials adding a tool they plan to use sparingly.

“The Council should not enact laws unless it intends to implement them,” Marek said. “It undermines the legitimacy of the legal system when laws are applied irregularly, fueling public confusion and distrust and increasing the likelihood of arbitrary and discriminatory application.”

Lynn Porter, who has run the Homeless Action mailing list for more than a decade, called the proposed change ‘stupid, unconstitutional and morally disgusting’ and said it would only make things worse for homeless people. .

“They’re already living in hell, but somehow you think it’s okay to make their lives even more miserable,” he said.

Hitting people with bigger fines and jail time doesn’t solve the problem, Porter said.

He and others have criticized the city for considering changes that could put people in a financial hole and mess up their criminal records simply because they can’t find housing amid a national housing crisis.

“You’re throwing money into a pit instead of solving the problem,” said Robyn Matsumoto, street outreach specialist at the HIV Alliance. “Solve the problem by not doing this.”

Matsumoto and others who work directly with people living on the streets said that when someone moves out after a sweep or to comply with the rules, it is often difficult to find them to provide medical care and other services. . And they said that fines and criminal records were barriers to improving people’s lives and getting housing.

Contact city government watchdog Megan Banta at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @MeganBanta_1.