Waking up on the morning of September 8th felt like a scene from a movie with my neighborhood blanketed in ash, and news that the Holiday Farm Fire had razed communities along the McKenzie river circulated throughout Lane County. The morning air was miasmic, thick with the acrid smell of smoke; ash rained down the size of large snowflakes. As I passed out N95 masks to my roommates, packed my go-bag, and prepared to hunker down indoors, I reflected on how lucky I was to be able to do so. I knew that hundreds of individuals in our community were houseless and would not have the option of sheltering in place. Soon I would learn that over 40,000 Oregonians would join them, forced to flee their homes across the state as refugees of historic climate-driven wildfires.
Yet, in the face of the compounding crises of a global pandemic, social uprising, raging fire, and toxic air, activists and community members across the county wasted no time. Over the course of the next two weeks, over 1,000 Eugene and Springfield residents volunteered at the Silke Field Relief Site in Springfield, distributing resources and support to community members forced to evacuate. Hundreds more coordinated online relief efforts, organizing: food drop-offs, animal rescue, evacuation support, and supply drives. While community members rushed to the aid of evacuees, a small group of grassroots organizers turned their attention to the members of our community who too often are left behind. At a time when air quality index levels topped the highest recorded levels in global history, Black Thistle Street Aid (BTSA) and Community Outreach for Radical Empowerment (CORE) hit the streets to bring relief efforts and support to the houseless community in Eugene.
City relief efforts targeted towards supporting houseless community members followed previous trends, and were, ultimately, minimal. Two day-time respite shelters opened (though one closed after only a few days) in response to the hazardous air quality. After several days, the Lane County Event Center was opened as an overnight shelter, but with the capacity to house only 15 individuals. In contrast, BTSA and CORE provided housing and relief services for 44 individuals, 7 of whom were referred to the groups by the city itself (16 were wildfire evacuees, 38 youth, 19 medically vulnerable, and all of whom are houseless). Over 150 additional individuals were supplied with basic survival gear, meal support, and medical services through these groups’ street outreach programs throughout the week.
However, for those of us working these front lines, the numbers do not satisfy. As of June 2020, over 2,000 unhoused individuals live in the Eugene area. In Lane County, the number neared 10,000 in 2019. Community members in Eugene are not blind to the crisis of housing that so many of our neighbors face.
On September 14th, ten out of the eleven speakers during the city council’s public forum shared their concerns regarding our houseless community members. Despite the many pleas, some forced out through gritted teeth with tearful sentiment, our city council continued to refuse to take action on the issue. Instead council members used their time to deflect accountability, pointing out issues of jurisdiction, budget, and other bureaucratic processes as obstacles to doing the work. Not one of us organizing around this issue were surprised. We know better than to look toward the city on the hill for solutions to the problems that its own bourgeois neoliberal policies have created. Instead, we look towards each other.
When the Black Lives Matter uprising started in June, my friends and I joked that we had entered “the cool zone,” a phrase popularized by journalist Robert Evans as a euphemism for describing a historical period in which anything could happen. In the cool zone, direct action and mutual aid organizing is the norm. It’s a strange sensation to feel opportunity in times of crisis, but here we are in Eugene, organizing our community at a level that seems just as unprecedented as the fires.
In her book A Paradise Built in Hell, Rebecca Solnit wrote, “The possibility of paradise hovers on the cusp of coming into being… If paradise now arises in hell, it’s because in the suspension of the usual order and the failure of most systems, we are free to live and act another way.” Lately, I find these words echoing in my mind. I hear them heralding a future that I can believe in. I see them reflected in the actions of the community around me. I feel them in the culture of care that those actions foster and lean into. I hold onto this, I let the trust I have in my community and fellow organizers fill me with hope. I know that we will continue to fight for justice, for basic human rights, for the environment, for the wellbeing of all of our neighbors.
I know that out of the ashes the masses will rise, and we will build our paradise.