A group of activists, students and community members interrupted dinner at Elkhorn Brewery near campus on Feb. 8 to call out owner Steve Sheehan’s attempts to criminalize poverty through his involvement in the anti-homeless group Eugene Wake Up.
The activists displayed a banner which read “House Keys not Handcuffs” and delivered a speech by megaphone about Eugene Wake Up’s cruel rhetoric that our unhoused community members are lawless criminals. The group also handed out flyers containing some of the hateful comments on Eugene Wake Up’s Facebook page. Despite being informed that the protest was peaceful, Elkhorn staff aggressively pushed and grabbed the activists and some patrons threatened the activists and ripped up their signs.
Activists seek to call attention to the hateful and false solutions Eugene Wake Up is promoting to solve homelessness. Some comments on the Eugene Wake Up Facebook page include calls or the forcible removal and killing of unhoused people, comparing them to animals. It appears that Eugene Wake Up’s Facebook page serves primarily as a platform for hate speech.
As gentrification continues in Eugene, more community members are forced into the streets. Between 2018 and 2019, the homeless population in Lane County increased by 32%. More than 35 people died while living on the streets in 2019 and approximately six have been lost this year.
Steve Sheehan has chosen to address the problem only because he believes it’s impacting his business. Sheehan formed Eugene Wake Up after a window was broken at his business last year. Since its creation, the group has deployed campus foot patrols and increased police surveillance of outdoor camps and is currently demanding an increase to the Lane County Jail’s funding and capacity.
Criminalizing poverty for the sake of businesses and NIMBYs will not solve the problem of homelessness. Alex Goldman, spokesperson for Stop Death on the Streets, said, “The social service agencies and the people living on the streets know the long-term solutions that we need: Housing First, Safe Injection sites, and accessible day use centers. These solutions are in reach if we begin to invest in them instead of pouring money into the cynical and ineffective methods of policing that groups like Eugene Wake Up suggest are the only solution. We are waiting for the city and citizens of Eugene to respond to this human-rights crisis for the emergency that it is. In the meantime, we will be keeping a keen eye on the behavior of the businesses in Eugene.”