Eugene’s Other Homeless Population

Eugene has been thinking hard this year about its homeless population. Meanwhile, another group, who may be considered professionally homeless, are being welcomed into downtown Springfield.

These people would tell you that they also live in their vehicles. They rely on others for their place to park. They often are looked down on by those who are better established. Many of them would love someday to invite people over to their own place — complete with an address. They dream of being able to spread out a little bit. They’d happily worry less about the weather. Most of all, they hope to prove to others that their years on the street weren’t wasted.

They’re food truck operators. Their lack of a permanent address gives them freedom to try new things. They enjoy feeding people from different locations on different days. Bricks and mortar are good for some things, but chefs often feel a constant need to improve and invent. Operating without a permanent home makes that easier.

It’s not hard to understand why food trucks have become popular with the public. In an age of micro-targeting, novelty-seeking, and cost-consciousness, food trucks change menus and locations whenever they want, while keeping their costs to a minimum. Why pay for patio seating if you can site your truck near a park where people already go?

Cities have struggled with this “homeless” population, which has exploded in recent years. Portland has built — or allowed to have built — conclaves around the city, where food trucks can share resources without disrupting others. Washington D.C. and other large cities are busily rewriting city codes to cope with the trend, but the rules they write often fail to respect the culture they seek to regulate.

Springfield has taken up the issue most recently. Springfield City Council has directed staff to look for ways to loosen its regulations. NEDCO, a local economic development agency, has agreed to play a role in writing — and then enforcing — the new rules.

Eugene long has had a laissez-faire approach to food trucks and food carts, but it might be time to make them laissezer.

Food carts at Kesey Square and on the Park Blocks are administered throughout the week by the Saturday Market staff. Food carts by the University of Oregon are coordinated by the Eugene Area Chamber of Commerce. Private property owners may lease spaces to food trucks with very few restrictions.

Eugene’s public parking spaces currently allow food vending, but only for ten minutes at a time. This rule dates back to ice cream trucks and children playing in the streets.

Sidewalks are public spaces, so cities understandably get distraught when people standing in line to buy a curbside burger clog the public right-of-way. For this and related reasons, commercial vending on public sidewalks has been allowed traditionally for only two industries — newspapers and telephones. Inveterate joke book salesman Frog was allowed to hawk his joke books by the university only after he was recategorized as a publisher and sales were technically attached to a nearby vending box on 13th Avenue.

Now Springfield is poised to surpass Eugene in food truck tolerance. Tolerance is supposed to be in Eugene’s wheelhouse, but apparently not when it involves wheeled houses. (If there’s one thing Eugene hates, it’s being surpassed on the political left.)

Restaurant owners sometimes complain that their business will suffer if cheaper alternatives are available nearby. Portland’s conclaves of food trucks have been likened to shantytowns.

Fortunately for Springfield, their mayor Christine Lundberg once owned a restaurant herself and she’s sanguine on the experiment. She wants the city to become more inviting.

NEDCO views food carts as micro-businesses that create and multiply economic opportunities for residents. Anything new and bustling will make downtown a destination, and Lundberg believes that all businesses will benefit from the additional people in the area.

In Lundberg’s mind, if having a food cart gives a cook the opportunity to experiment with Korean-style tacos made with black beans and pineapple chunks, why shouldn’t a small city be able to experiment with its parking policies? It seems only fair.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs.