Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Exposed Parts and Exclusion Zones: Week 6 of 52

May 27, 2012.

I'd really rather not think about the homeless.

Ostrich source, click here

On a bicycle though it's pretty hard not to.  There are people on almost every corner with cardboard signs, or pushing shopping carts stuffed with gear, asking for handouts, dropping cigarette butts and beer bottles, riding rattly bikes, their dogs looking sad and hungry while they block the sidewalk.

The other day I passed a woman who was part of an Occupy event, protesting the plight of the homeless by going topless. At least I think she was protesting the plight of the homeless. Trying to read the sign under her breasts felt like staring, so I didn't.  It seems logical though that she was standing for people who don't have money for basics (like clothes?).

Earlier this year homelessness turned into the focus of the local protest because the Occupy camp was inundated with homeless people.  As a result, a forum of our finest (I'm not being cynical, they are all hard working, good people), including city councilors and the mayor, the protestors and non-profits who provide shelter, food, beds, places to dry out and drug rehab, got together to try to figure out how to improve services.  The problem, of course, is that there isn't enough much money for shelter, food, beds, places to dry out and rehab.  At least, not money where people are willing to spend it.

What people were willing to spend for gas over Memorial Day weekend
The city meanwhile tries to keep a lid on the loiterers by enforcing a Downtown Public Safety Zone...

...also known as the Eugene Exclusion Zone.  The phrase "Exclusion zone"  originally was coined to designate an area that is hazardous.  Much of Fukushima, for instance, is an exclusion zone.

In our town it means that if you're not the right sort, you're arrested and banished for 30 days.

In some ways, this is appealing.  It does tidy things up.  I appreciate not having to step over sleeping bags on my way into the library.  Downtown looks pretty good.    

But sweeping the problem out of downtown doesn't do anything to solve it.

The banished relocate just outside the zone, some to parks along the river.  Some compete for sleeping places under bridges.  Good luck with that:

What can we do?  Unlike the innards of a bike, which can be maintained from time to time with a few squirts of oil....

It's complicated.

At bike-speed, you see just how complicated.  The homeless are not a lump or a label, but a bunch of people with a bunch of problems.  There are kids who look like they should be in school and people with the kind of tooth-rot you get from meth. There's a couple who shows up from time to time at month end with a sign indicating how much they need to make the rent, crossing off and re-tallying every time they get a donation. There are handsome guys whose smiles flatten when you say sorry, no money. There are young people with dreadlocks looking for a ride.  One guy doesn't bother with a sign, just holds his hands as if he had one.  Sense of humor, that one.

It's tempting to retreat to the mini-exclusion zone...

Betty Boop

...but rolling up the window isn't going to make panhandlers disappear.

We are smart enough to make things that are simple and elegant on the outside and mind-bogglingly complex on the inside:

We must be smart enough to figure out how to help people get off the streets if they want to.

Me?  I'm not smart enough. It's hard to see how to do much good.  I'll just keep cycling and dodging dogs, and maybe I'll get to see something great, like those people who ask for rent money get a million dollars through a car window.  All I know is it's hard to forget someone when there is nothing but air between you.

How are the homeless doing in your town?

   UPDATE in my quest to ride 104 times in in 52 weeks:  End of week 6:  12 rides.  So far so good.


  1. Now for factual twists and turns. Working with Blanchet House denizens and listening to hundreds of people testify about their ailments has given me a radically different view of "homeless" people. To make progress with this problem we need ot find a way to distinguish people who prefer to live outdoors by choice from those who have little or no option but to camp outside. Those who would come indoors if they could, range from con artists to mentally, emotionally and physiclly disabled. Sorting them out is a chore. My view is that we as a society are less guilty of turning a blind eye to people who make us squirm than we are of pigeonholing them with labels so that we can mentally put them in the same social dumpster.

    I know you are aware that every year gasoline refineries are shut down in late spring for "regular maintenance". Voila! Gas prices zoom up every summer as soon as our tourism and wanderlust begins. Not even bicycling can offset this gouging. But why is gas 60 cents per gallon higher here than on the East coast?

    Just wondering. Andy B.

  2. You're right, labels are a shortcut to avoiding a problem. My point though is that eliminating services like health care, education, "drying out" facilities and drug rehab centers gives the "homeless", whoever they are, less of a chance to sort themselves out.

    Read an interesting story about why gas prices are higher in the northwest. Punishment for our distance from refineries? Maybe. Lowest prices are in South Carolina. Wanna head south?


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