Occupy Roseburg member Jeri Benedetto says she believes concerned residents can create a legal campsite for Roseburg’s homeless.
“If we all pull together as a community, we can make this happen,” Benedetto told about 60 people who came Thursday to the Douglas County Library to discuss the idea.
Four people got up and left at the beginning of the meeting after Occupy Roseburg member Dancer Davis said, “If you’re here to dispute the idea of a camp, this is the wrong place for you.”
Those who remained heard from organizers in Portland and Eugene and homeless advocates who visited those cities and came back with ideas about what could be done in Roseburg.
After the meeting, volunteers signed up for two committees. One will look into possible sites for a camp. The other will study legal issues involved in creating a camp.
Ibrahim Mubarek, who co-founded Portland’s Dignity Village 13 years ago, said homeless people can live better lives if given the chance.
He said Dignity Village began with four people camping under a bridge on Oregon Department of Transportation land. They were soon joined by three more and eventually their movement swelled to 250 homeless people moving from place to place, learning to fight City Hall and even to lobby in Salem. Dignity Village has grown from a group of tents to a place with bedroom-sized houses.
Mubarek went on to help found Right 2 Dream Too. “House-less people have a right to dream, too,” he said.
Mubarek said people need to wake up from the American dream and start making a difference.
“They call it the American dream because you have to be asleep to believe it,” Mubarek said. He said the idea that everyone can go to college, get a great job and have 2.5 kids and a picket fence just is not realistic for many. Worse, it can blind people to the plight of those who aren’t living the dream.
“If you don’t meet that concept you’re a throwaway. That’s what they’re doing to house-less people these days,” Mubarek said. “Just because you’re on the streets doesn’t mean you’re no good.”
Eugene organizer Sabra Marcroft said advocates there hope to create a home for 30 people, just a fraction of the 10,000 homeless people in Lane County.
“The problem is much, much bigger than is officially reported, and my sense is the problem here is much bigger than reported, so we’re making baby steps,” she said.
She said increasing numbers of people older than 40 are losing jobs and will never see another middle-income job in their lifetimes.
“We have a permanently homeless class that we’re developing,” she said.
Michael Smith, a physician for South River Community Health Center in Winston, said he serves a growing number of homeless people in Douglas County. He said the county had about 500 homeless in 2008 and a year later that number jumped to 818. Thirty-one percent of the county’s homeless are children, he said.
Homeless Roseburg resident Eric MacRis asked audience members how many of them had a shower that day and how many owned a refrigerator. He said his lifestyle, camping by the river, is very different.
“I live in a tent, I have a cooler and that’s all I’ve got,” MacRis said. “You can lock your door at night, but I can’t because I have a zipper.”
Being homeless makes simple tasks like showering or even going to the bathroom a challenge, he said.
MacRis said the homeless don’t want to be a burden on the community. They want work to do and a safe place to sleep.
“We want to be a help to the community,” he said.
Occupy Roseburg member Derek Ball of Myrtle Creek and Douglas County Housing and Homeless Coalition resource developer Ian Smith shared what they learned visiting other homeless camps.
Ball said he noticed camp residents had democratic self-governance, which he said gave them a stake in how well the place was run.
“Each person who lived there had pride in their community and did what needed to be done,” he said.
Smith encouraged volunteers to decide whether they wanted a camp on public or private land, how far it should be from downtown and how many people should be allowed.
“The more clearly we can define what we want to do, the more likely we’ll be able to get there,” Smith said.
Davis said the key is making sleep legal for those without houses.
“Basically what we’re proposing is everybody needs a safe, legal place to put their head down,” Davis said. “The camps are going to be here whether we sanction them or don’t, so why not create a safe place for people to be.”
Much of the audience discussion centered around whether to seek help from the government.
Milton Bernheisel of Roseburg suggested avoiding asking the government for help with the project.
“Why are you going to the very monster that created this situation to solve this situation?” Bernheisel said.
Joshua Graham of Roseburg, who described himself as house-less, said the government should help because it contributed to the problem.
From her experience in Eugene, Marcroft recommended working with individual government officials, who could make more humane choices than the government as a whole.
Jeremiah Elliott, business services director at the Douglas County Health Department, said he works with many government workers who help care for the homeless.
“We’re part of your community too. We’re part of your neighborhood,” he said.
• You can reach reporter Carisa Cegavske at 541-957-4213 or firstname.lastname@example.org.