This is an atypical week for Council which had a full night on Monday, but no meeting on Wednesday. We are instead meeting for a virtual Council retreat on Saturday.
I will begin with the second of Monday’s work sessions which discussed Commercial Setbacks. Even though this may not sound like the most exciting conversation, it is a welcome return to normalcy to talk about an ongoing, pre-pandemic concern. This long-standing agenda item for Council is a response to an issue that seems straightforward and obvious, but for which the solutions are complex. The concern, most apparent with the Capstone building at 13th and Olive, is the unfriendly urban landscape that is created by a tall building that is built right up against the sidewalk on a busy street. Council had voted to reverse the code which currently doesn’t require setbacks from the sidewalk. Under this revision, the code would require setbacks and include specific exemptions. Staff shared the insights, options and concerns offered in focus groups of builders and architects on setback design options and will return to Council with a proposed list of exemptions to this new rule.
The other work session of the night provided a review of the City’s emergency response to the pandemic in 2020. Between opening the Emergency Operations Center on March 13th and the first vaccinations on December 30th, City staff received emergency training, redirected their work from normal tasks to emerging needs, worked across departments and developed greater experience and resiliency that will support us in future events. Working virtually across the organization with new software and systems, City staff maintained operations and services despite shutdowns and closures.
In the fall of 2019, I had hosted a Mayor’s Summit on Emergency Preparedness to strengthen our partnerships with Lane County and the other cities in the County. Those partnerships are now stronger due to this past year of forging relationships in response to COVID. This will help us in the event of a major earthquake.
That’s the good news. On harder news, Councilors, staff and I continue to hear a lot of community outrage about the number of homeless campers, the impact on neighborhoods and businesses, and the trauma inflicted on campers when the city requires them to move. City staff is following Council’s direction to protect certain areas of Eugene from the impact of camping—riparian areas, playgrounds and schools, and neighborhood parks.
In response to COVID and CDC guidelines, the City has, to a great extent, lifted our ban on camping except in those areas; and we have increasingly provided portable toilets and supported trash removal. We are trying to support campers with increased outreach and understand that is not easy for unsheltered people to know about or find places where they can stay undisturbed.
Eugeneans are finding this unrelieved human suffering and the unpredictability of behavior and impacts of camping unbearable and unsustainable. Our systems for meeting the need are stressed: the City has increased resources thanks to Coronavirus Relief funds to do much of the work to try to support our unsheltered folks, but we are not equipped as a City to meet the human service needs of 2,000-3,000 people who are unsheltered on any given night. The prospect that this number may increase as the rent moratorium expires is alarming.
The answer is larger than the City of Eugene. Our partnership and shared investment with the County will be essential because the County is the conduit for State and Federal funds and has the Human Services and Public Health infrastructure to support this ongoing work. We will continue to advocate for State and Federal funds yet that will not change the experience on our streets and in our public spaces immediately.
City staff is preparing a presentation of data about where and how many people are camping throughout the City. This information will be used to inform an upcoming City Council work session. We all agree that the current situation needs to change. As we all know creating change will take some hard conversations at a time when the City is facing budget cuts. This haunting level of human need is a terrible legacy of neglect. Turning that around will take deep community commitment to solutions that I know we can find together.