[Hpn] Eugene Shelters Homeless Car Dwellers
Morgan W. Brown
Sat, 29 Sep 2001 23:09:38 -0400
Eugene Shelters Homeless Car Dwellers:
Local - San Diego Daily Transcript - updated 8:23 PM ET
Thursday September 27 05:33 PM EDT
Eugene Shelters Homeless Car Dwellers
EUGENE, Ore. -- An old van sits alone in a downtown parking lot near a trash
bin and a portable toilet. The van doesn't run and it's in sore need of some
TLC. But it's home sweet home to Kathy Obert, a 60-year-old homeless woman.
Obert can't find anyone willing to hire her. "Would you want a hand like
this pouring your coffee?" she asked, showing a shaky hand.
She uses jugs of water in her broken-down van to wash herself because she
can't afford to take a bus to a relief agency that has showers for the
But at least Obert doesn't have to worry about a police officer coming along
and chasing her away.
Obert is one of scores of homeless people who live in old cars, vans or
recreational vehicles on sites set aside for that purpose by the city of
Eugene, which has a reputation for being one of the most liberal places in
A leafy university town just west of the Cascades, Eugene is apparently the
only city in the country with such a program for homeless people with
wheels, according to the National Coalition of the Homeless.
Camping on the streets of the city of 137,000 is prohibited. But for the
past three years, city officials have been making an exception for homeless
people who live in vehicles.
The city has supplied 15 sites where people living in vehicles can stay for
up to 90 days, a limit that is flexible. About 60 more sites have been
supplied by churches, businesses and nonprofit organizations.
Each site is provided with a portable toilet and a trash bin and is limited
to a maximum of three vehicles.
The program is run by a Roman Catholic relief agency, St. Vincent de Paul.
The agency coordinates with city officials to find places for homeless
people to park the vehicles they are living in.
"For every space in the parking program there are 10 applicants," said
William Wise, who works at the street level for St. Vincent de Paul.
On any given night about 1,800 people will try to get into one of the city's
homeless shelters. Richie Weinman, the neighborhoods and affordable housing
manager for the city of Eugene, said the real number "is two or three or
four times that, nobody knows for sure."
The number of homeless people living in cars is equally hard to calculate,
Weinman said, but estimates it is many more than 100.
Eugene's program aside, a 1998 survey by the National Coalition of the
Homeless determined that Oregon does not have a good reputation for
"There are anti-camping ordinances that many cities have, anti-panhandling
laws and drug-free zones," said Chuck Currie, the Portland representative of
the Washington D.C.-based group. "Eugene has a reputation as an open and
progressive community and it would be hard to replicate something like that
without the political dynamic they have."
Even though current Eugene regulations stipulate that homeless people who
live in cars and vans have to park their vehicles on designated sites, those
who don't do so are only told to move on if there are complaints from
"The police are compassionate about this," Wise said. "They don't want to
write a ticket or take a homeless person to jail or tow their homes, but
they can't ignore the complaints of the other citizens, either."
A van owned by Lori Harward, 60-ish, is parked illegally with two other
home/vehicles on an isolated street in west Eugene's industrial area.
A bed is tucked in crosswise in the back. There is a card table. Strands of
costume jewelry hang from a hook.
"I'd rather be in my van than have to adapt to other people, or to my kids,
God forbid," she said.
So far, she has not been ordered by police to move on.
Eugene officials chose their current approach to the homeless car dwellers
because strict enforcement of the no-camping ban was failing.
"It was a cat-and-mouse game," with the car dwellers just moving on to some
other location, Weinman said.
There are few complaints against the legal car-dwellers because they are
scattered around in groups of one to three, instead of being bunched
together in large groups, said Weinman.
But the homeless car dwellers must follow certain rules, including no drugs,
no alcohol and no pets.
Harward can't get onto one of the legal sites because she refuses to part
with her large brown dog.
"I'd nut (go crazy) without her," she said.
Gary Donahue, 37, lives on an undesignated site in a 1983 Audi. He's been
there for 2 1/2 months, since arriving here unemployed from the San Diego
area. He had vacationed in Oregon, liked it and came north when his job as
an assistant construction supervisor vanished.
He eats sandwiches in his car. A homeless woman parked nearby in a camper
lets him heat water in a bucket for a sponge bath. Other needs are met in an
adjacent wooded area.
"I was really depressed in the beginning, sleeping in my car," he said. "But
I'm finding more and more people in this situation. Some sleep in the
bushes. I'm grateful I have a car."
He is trying to find a job and gets California unemployment benefits.
Donahue, who is divorced, keeps a box of mementos of his 10-year-old
daughter in his trunk. She lives with her mother in Utah. She is on an
"on-and-off-track" school schedule in which she goes for 90 days and has 30
"This was supposed to be my month to have her back, but ...," he said,
looking at his surroundings and shrugging.
Wise arrived at Donahue's site to say there had been a second complaint and
that he would have to move. He said he would but didn't know where he would
set up next.
"Signe (his friend) is on the list for a legal place, but she has a dog and
some cats," Donahue said.
The lives of the car campers aren't easy.
Randy Mellen, a 50-ish unemployed welder whose vehicle is parked across from
an industrial concern, has complaints about some of his fellow car dwellers.
"Most of the campers are good but some are terrible slobs and leave garbage
everywhere. I tell them, 'get it out of here, it draws the heat.'"
A bigger concern are thugs who harass, intimidate and even attack the
"Some of the nastier people out there drive by and throw things, and shout
all kinds of obscenities," said Mellen. "On Halloween, people shot at us
with high-powered pellet guns, and someone threw a pumpkin through one of
our rear windows."
Living in a motor home behind Mellen is Jeff Hennington, a 52-year-old
unemployed Vietnam veteran. Hennington said he has been beaten by thugs.
"I ain't going to be here long. They come along and crittel (steal from)
you. They crittel your TV. If your pets are valuable your pets get stolen,"
**In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. section 107, this
material is distributed without charge or profit to
those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving
this type of information for non-profit research and
educational purposes only.**
-------End of forward-------
Morgan W. Brown
Montpelier Vermont USA
Get your FREE download of MSN Explorer at http://explorer.msn.com/intl.asp