In Eugene, homeless campers in city parks are being given just two hours notice to move. For many years, city workers gave campers at least 24 hours notice. But starting in 2021, the city created a new category of “non-established” campers, apparently to get around a law passed that year that required 72 hours be given to unhoused campers, according to reporting in the Eugene Weekly. The number of two-hour eviction notices has risen drastically, and the city appears to have set a record for such notices in 2022. Now Eugene’s Human Rights Commission is questioning why the city council and mayor were not informed of this change and plans to hold public listening sessions on the matter. We talk with Alexis Weisend, who reported the story for the University of Oregon’s Catalyst Journalism Project and Eugene Weekly.
Note: This transcript was computer generated and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. Oregon lawmakers passed a law in 2021 requiring that cities give 72 hour notice to homeless campers before forcing them to move, but recent reporting in Eugene Weekly found that the city of Eugene has been using a kind of loophole to get around this requirement. According to the documents, more than half of the notices city workers now serve are rapid evictions, meaning campers have just two hours to pack up and move perhaps all of their belongings.
Alexis Weisend reported the story for the University of Oregon’s Catalyst Journalism Project and Eugene Weekly, and she joins us now. It’s good to have you on Think Out Loud.
Alexis Weisend: Yeah. Thanks for having me.
Miller: What was the situation for homeless campers before this 2021 state law?
Weisend: We have camp cleanup work orders going back to 2018, and we can see from those previous work orders that all camps in parks used to get 24 hours, and then, for about four months, 72 hours notice.
Miller: What exactly did this 2021 law require?
Weisend: House Bill 3124 required that established camps get 72 hours notice, but “established camps” was not defined.
Miller: That really seems to be the loophole, the lack of definition, that city officials were able to use to kick people out in a much faster way. Can you explain the way they were able to use this loophole?
Weisend: What I found out, after the story, is that the city specifically went to the city attorney after this house bill passed that required 72 hours notice. The city came up with a definition for non-established or for established, which would be that a camp is in place, one spot, for less than 24 hours, and so any camp that doesn’t follow that is a non-established camp. The city says that that doesn’t apply to the law, so the city has been giving those camps specifically two hour notices. That specifically happens in parks.
When I asked why, they said that one, that parks are closed overnight, and that they want to deter people from thinking that they can live in parks, but also that parks and open space has the staff to be able to go out and check an area to see if it’s clear of camps, and then come back less than 24 hours later, and see what camps have appeared, and hand those people two hour notices.
Miller: How did officials at the city that you talked to, how did they justify this change in policy? From what you’re describing, they see that it fits under the state law, because state lawmakers never exactly defined what an established camp is, and what a not established, an unestablished camp, is. But how did city officials explain the reasoning behind seeking out this loophole?
Weisend: They didn’t, really. They mostly explained it afterwards at this Human Rights Commission meeting that I attended last week. They said that it’s to deter people from staying in parks, and that was mostly their justification for it, but I haven’t found out too much from the city on specifically why.
Miller: I want to hear more about the Human Rights Commission in a bit, but I want to dig deeper first into just how common these evictions are. What did you find when you looked at the numbers over the last two or three years?
Weisend: These kinds of evictions that are two hour notices, they started in October of 2021, which is four months after the house bill passed that requires 72 hour notices. So, for about four months, we could see from the work orders that people in parks, there was no distinguishing between established and non-established camps, and all people in parks, unless there was illegal activity happening or some of those things, they received 72 hours notice.
Then the first one appeared in October of 2021; there was a camp in Washington Jefferson Park, and you can see that it says that person has two hours to leave. And then what we noticed was every single month, pretty much every month, the percentage of evictions that the city was handing out to unhoused camps, that were two hour notices, that were non-established camp notices, just kept rising. It got to the point over time where, January through March of this year, more than half of all the times unhoused people move, they only get two hours.
Miller: What did you hear from campers about the difference between having two hours to fully clear out, and having, say, 48 hours, or full three days, 72 hours?
Weisend: I went out to the Fern Ridge Creek Trail in Eugene, which is, we found in the work order, statistically, one of the most common places that the city hands out these two hour notices. I spoke to several people. It’s harder for them. They’re confused, because they’ve lived in parks for a while, most of them, and they remember getting these 72 hour notices and then 24 hour notices before that. They don’t know why the attitude has changed. They’re not sure what’s going on. There’s not a lot of clarity around the change in policy and the change in practice. It’s harder for them, because they say that they’re afraid to leave their camps for more than two hours and go do something, because they can come back and all of their things are gone.
Miller: Oh, wait, that’s an important point here about when the two hours start. Does a camper actually have to be there, and take possession, be handed the piece of paper, for the clock to start? Or could they say, go to their job at 9:00 AM, and then a piece of paper is put there at 10:00 AM, and they get back at 4:00 or 5:00 in the afternoon and everything’s gone?
Weisend: Once that piece of paper is given to a camp, and I don’t believe the person has to be present. It’s just given to a camp. That person has two hours to move. Otherwise, the city workers are gonna be back and what they do is, they’ll take their things to a storage facility. Anything that they deem valuable, anything that’s in a sanitary condition, they’ll take that to a storage facility, but not everyone can make the trip there, and return with all their things. I spoke to one woman who had her things taken, and the storage facility was two miles away from where she was.
Another thing to mention, as well, is that the storage facility where these people’s items are kept, it’s closed after 2:30 PM on weekdays, and then it’s closed on weekends. So if you get a two hour notice maybe in the evening or on the weekend, you might not have your things, like a tent or a sleeping bag to sleep with that night.
Miller: How common is it for people to simply lose their belongings, then? Either because they are deemed unsanitary, or they are put in this locked facility, but people don’t have an easy way to actually retrieve them?
Weisend: It was difficult to find that out statistically, because it’s not perfectly recorded in the camp cleanup work orders. What I can tell you is, anecdotally, from speaking with people who have lost their items, it seems to happen more with two hour notices than it does with 72 hour notices, and that makes sense because you have more time, much more time, to move your belongings with 72 hours notice.
Miller: Were you able to find out who came up with this policy change?
Weisand: Like an individual person?
Miller: Yeah, it just seems a little bit faceless; it seems like city officials made this change, but I’m wondering if in your reporting you’ll be able to find out who was behind it?
Weisend: No, and I asked that question, but what I was told consistently was that this was a decision made within parks and open space, and that it was just a procedural change, which is why I spoke to a member of the city council and I spoke to the mayor as well. Neither of them knew about these two hour notices. So I asked the city why there’s no public announcement about this change, and why the city council wasn’t informed, and they said that typically procedural changes aren’t announced, and that they don’t have to legally notify the city council.
Miller: Because in this reasoning, this is not a law change. This is just an interpretation of either city regulation or state law and thus, they don’t need to inform elected leaders at the city level that they’re proceeding differently, because the law itself hasn’t changed. That’s their argument.
Miller: Well what did you hear, from elected officials, from the mayor or a member of the city council, when you presented them with these findings, that recently more than half of these sweeps happened with under two hours notice, or no more than two hours notice?
Weisend: They just seemed really surprised. They didn’t know. They definitely didn’t know about the volume of these two hour notices, and they didn’t know about these two hour notices in the first place, that people only had two hours to leave. They seemed very surprised.
Miller: What have you heard about this two year old sweeps policy from social service agencies, or advocates for homeless people in the Eugene area?
Weisend: They were also surprised to find this out, which is interesting. Only one person knew about it, and he said that he knew about it because people who have received those two hour notices had eventually come to his shelter, but they were also, I think, frustrated, because they thought that it was something that should have been a more public process. On their website, on the city’s website, it said, for several months while they were giving out these notices, it still had their old policy up, which was that camps and parks would receive 72 hours notice, while they were handing out two hour notices to some of these camps in parks.
Miller: Finally, I want to return back to the Human Rights Commission which you mentioned briefly at the beginning. In a follow-up article that you put out, you noted that they have gotten involved in this issue seemingly simply because of your reporting. What’s happening right now?
Weisend: So they had a very preliminary conversation with a city spokesperson for Eugene’s Unhoused Response. They were asking questions, and they wanted to know where unhoused people are supposed to go when they lose their things and they get these notices. They also had a lot of questions about why this is happening, like we had talked about earlier, why the city made this decision. The Human Rights Commission, specifically the Homeless and Poverty Work group, says that they hope to work with the city in the future to make this process of non-established camp notices easier on people who are camping in parks.
Miller: Alexis Weisend, thanks very much.
Weisend: Thank you.
Miller: Alexis Weisend is a journalism and political science major at the University of Oregon and a reporter for the Catalyst Journalism Project. She recently wrote an article for Eugene Weekly showing that more than half of homeless campers who were forced to move by the city, were given only two hours to do so.
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