Source: The Guardian
Eugene official criticizes effort that ‘targets a class of people’ as ordinance bars many dogs from central area, raising fears among homeless people with deep attachments to their animal companions: ‘They’ve run me out of town’
By Amanda Waldroupe
John Tarry and Adam Chili Hansman are homeless men who busk for a living in downtown Eugene, Oregon. They each make about $30 a week – enough to buy cigarettes and food for their dogs, Seven, a black lab, and Eema, a husky-pit bull mix.
But soon the two men plan to leave Eugene altogether, and it is on account of their pets.
A recently passed city ordinance bans many dogs from a 12-block area of Eugene’s downtown core. Intended to address public safety concerns, the ban has been criticized as a thinly veiled way to exclude homeless people.
“There’s no foot traffic” outside of downtown, Tarry said, making it impossible for him to make money. “I’m dead in the water in this town now. They have successfully run me out of town.”
Eugene is a mid-sized city once dominated by logging but now by the University of Oregon. During a one-night homeless count, about 1,500 people were tallied in the county at large, and in Eugene, as in other locations on the west coast, they must grapple with a tight supply of affordable housing and a low vacancy rate.
The city allows the operation of authorized encampments and permits homeless people to sleep in their cars without being disturbed by the police. But some say that legislation such as the canine ban in effect criminalizes homelessness, echoing a ban on sitting and lying on Waikiki sidewalks and a Denver ban on “unauthorized camping”.
The dog ban comes in the context of Eugene’s intense efforts to revitalize its downtown; one report found there had been investments of over $220m of public and private money in a five-year period. It is now thronged with shoppers, students, buskers, and the thousands of people who use the Eugene public library each day.
Eugene has previously tried to regulate its streets with an ordinance that allowed for the exclusion of people from downtown after they had been cited for criminal behavior; over half of those excluded were homeless, which caused an outcry. In any event, the ordinance expired in 2013, and complaints to police originating downtown have risen by almost half in the last three years, while animal welfare officers have been called out far more frequently than in the past.
Some residents and business owners say they worry about “aggressive” panhandling, fighting and drug dealing. The dog ban was precipitated by a high-profile incident last summer when the dog of a public library employee was attacked and killed by a larger dog owned by a person on the street.
“If you have several of them with dogs, then it’s inherently dangerous,” Mike Clark, a city councillor who voted in support of the ban, has said.
Nicole Desch, the owner of Heritage Dry Goods, which sells American-made products, said: “People don’t feel safe downtown,” adding that the ban was a “tool to disperse groups of people”.
Desch said she was sexually harassed multiple times last summer. As she walked down the sidewalk, men whom she described as loitering on the street would say “what they would like to do with me, do to me”, she said. “It was horrible.”
The ordinance passed in a 6-2 vote by the Eugene city council last month. Police K-9 dogs, dogs kept in cars, and dogs owned by people who live at a permanent address or work within the area are exempt from the ban. Service dogs – dogs trained to assist people with physical or mental disabilities – are exempt as well. People who violate the ban face a $100 citation. The ban is a pilot and will expire in November without another council vote.
Already, downtown Eugene is nearly devoid of dogs – police officers have been informing owners about the ban since it passed and giving out maps of the ban area.
“It targets a class of people,” said Emily Semple, one of the city councillors who voted against the ban. She believes it discriminates against homeless residents. “Unless you can find someone to take care of your dog, you can’t come downtown. It is intensely unfair.”
Indeed, she is herself prevented from walking Sophie, her nine-year-old border collie-boxer mix, between her home and her office, which are located on either side of the exclusion zone.
Semple acknowledged that as many as 30 people, some with dogs, have congregated on sidewalk corners. But the problem, Semple said, was not homelessness per se. “The criminals are able to hide in that group.”
Jeff Keim, the manager of Thunderbird Market and a vehement opponent of the ban, agreed. “There was a real problem in the last eight months with lawlessness, some of which was homeless, some of which was not,” he said. He believes that the addition of two beat cops downtown has already improved the situation.
Whatever the rights and wrongs of the ban, many homeless people face being caught up in it. According to a Seattle University School of Law study, up to 25% of homeless people own a pet.
“They can be protection. They are family. They are a reason to live, to get up. It could be a lifeline to sanity or sobriety,” said Jeannie Peterson, a board member and volunteer coordinator with Pro-Bone-O, a Eugene not-for-profit group that provides free food and basic veterinary services to pets belonging to homeless people.
Linda Hoover, 66, who lives in a low-income hotel in Eugene, said her dog, a long-haired dachshund named Letty, can sense whenever Hoover begins to feel anxious, depressed or angered.
“I’ll pick her up and hug her and kiss her, pet her, scratch her back,” Hoover said. “It takes me away from where I’m at.”
She began to cry as she thought about how much Letty had helped her. “People wouldn’t like me if I didn’t have Letty,” she said.
To Tarry and Chili Hansman, the buskers, their dogs are everything. “Have you seen Castaway?” Tarry asked. “You end up talking to a volleyball if you have no one else.”
As he spoke, Seven jumped up and leaned against him, wagging her tail; her gaze never left him.
There is one place where homeless people can still have a dog downtown – the Dining Room, a not-for-profit establishment that provides free lunches four days a week. Crates are lined up against one wall in the parking lot for people to put their dogs in while they eat. If the dog is a companion or service animal, the Dining Room’s staff lets it inside.
After eating there, Tarry and Chili Hansman walked down a street on the edge of the ban zone. They stopped at a sidewalk corner, and their dogs lay down next to them.
“Our dogs are vicious beasts, aren’t they?” Chili Hansman said.