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Empathy, Not Information Will Solve Downtown Safety Issue

February 10th, 2017 by dk

Eugene has tackled the problem of downtown public safety before. The troubles in 1997 were the same as today: needles, urine, cursing on one end; frustration, fear, befuddlement on the other.

Ward 1 was represented 20 years ago by Bobby Lee. He went straight from being student government president at the University of Oregon to winning a seat on the Eugene City Council. He was 27 years old when this issue first came before him as an elected official.

Not knowing any better, Lee started hanging out downtown to listen to the disaffected youth. He could almost blend in — haunting the concrete fountain structure, wandering our desolate walking mall. He forged friendships and learned how they coped.

After several months, he took the next step. He gathered some camping gear and spent a couple of nights sleeping downtown. He thought this would be the best way for him to genuinely understand the problem that he and his fellow councilors were trying to solve.

Lee brought a new kind of awareness into the council chambers in 1997. His colleagues listened. Eugene drafted its car camping ordinance, which continues to give many homeless people legal refuge from winter rains.

Lee works today as the Governor’s Regional Solutions Coordinator for the Portland Metro area. I called him this week to ask about his 1997 experience. What he told me, which does not necessarily reflect the governor’s views or her administration’s, surprised us both.

We discussed Eugene’s downtown dilemma first through the lens he uses in his day job. “People are often surprised how complex social problems are,” he told me, “but they shouldn’t be. Every problem we face is multi-dimensional. If you can’t see the problem from multiple angles, the solutions you develop won’t really work in the real world.”

I asked him if he remembers the nights he slept on the street.

“As clear as those hot August nights! There was some sort of meteor event in the sky. I remember that. But I also remember seeing a teenager sleeping with his cheek on the pavement — nothing in between him and the street. Looking back now, it feels like it was yesterday.

“That experience fundamentally changed me. I’m a different person, as a result. I used to complain about little things. I don’t do that now, because I’ve seen how small those complaints really are. I appreciate my life a lot better. I became a better person.

“It suddenly became clear to me why I was doing what I was doing. When you’re an elected official, you’re usually afraid of something — you might say the wrong thing, you might lose somebody’s support, you might not win the next election. After those nights, I wasn’t afraid any more.

“I saw that night that talk was really just that. All of a sudden, that seemed too small. I could see there was much more that I could be doing.

“It’s weird, but this is the first time I’ve ever really talked to anyone about it. Nobody has ever asked before, but I’m absolutely certain it made me who I am today.

“I finally found my mission. I learned under those stars what it meant to be a public servant, as opposed to an elected official. I saw with great clarity how I could use my position to make a real difference. Everyone has their own unique calling that they need to follow. I found mine that night, 20 years ago.”

Lee takes a multi-dimensional approach to the problems he’s called on to help solve in Portland. He’s been sharpening these skills for decades, but the point of it all was revealed to him on the street, in the dark. How it happened still surprises him.

Emily Semple now represents Ward 1. She was arrested for protesting for the homeless in 2012. Eugene Mayor Lucy Vinis worked at ShelterCare, so she knows about lifting up the underclass. New voices and perspectives will be welcome, but Lee’s lesson is vital.

Information is no substitute for empathy. Some messages received and lessons learned arrive only in the dead of night.


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at

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