Travelers Prompt Eugene to Dig Deeper

Leaders give us language, making it easier for us to talk about and to ourselves. Eugene Mayor Kitty Piercy’s recent open letter about commandeered public spaces downtown focused on “travelers.” For many of us, that’s a new term and a useful distinction.

By giving us a term for a subset, Piercy has broken down the largest barrier that comes from an “us versus them” attitude — the monolith. When going to war, every opposing actor is “the enemy” — distinctions are discouraged because nobody wants to kill another person, who has a family and a story. Dehumanizing the enemy is how wars are won.

But Eugene’s struggle about street people is not a war to be won. It’s a problem to be solved. Piercy’s comments pull us back from that brink, making room for nuance. All the people hanging out around downtown are not identical, even if our reaction to each of them is.

Homelessness can provoke a surprising and hidden aggression inside many of us. Call it resentment. We show up at our job every day, but work drains us. We have a roof over our head, but not the life we had hoped for. It can feel like we’re paying a steep price for our homefulness. We may silently — fleetingly — wonder if the homeless are getting the better deal. (Until it rains.)

Aggression cannot help our problem-solving. As long as we’re stuck in “fight or flight” mode, creativity will not emerge.

But now, thanks to Piercy’s insight, we can discard the monolith and parse some distinctions. Travelers are not the suddenly destitute — thrown out of their home by a domestic dispute, a missed paycheck, or some stretch of bad luck. They are usually not mentally ill, unable to control their urges or anticipate consequences. They’re just passing through Eugene, on the road, looking for their next adventure.

Each generation has its own version of vagabond thrill-seekers. Riding the rails captured this wanderlust, then hitchhiking. Who among us didn’t at least once want to run away with the circus when growing up got hard? Today’s travelers are modern “carnies,” except without the itinerant carnival to bring them here and take them away.

Unlike some other subsets of our downtown population, travelers have goals and may respond well to rewards. Travelers want to leave town. Or they may see in Eugene a place to settle down. Either way, we can help them.

Here’s where problem-solving becomes essential. Government and social service agencies have no excess capacity. Downtown merchants and residents are frustrated. The force we’ve not yet harnessed is the good will of all the regular people who work or dine downtown. That influx has diluted the problem, but it hasn’t solved it.

We give a traveler money because it feels humane, but what if it deepens the misery that drugs or alcohol already have caused? Refusing to give them money creates a different set of doubts — would others help me if I was in this man’s (lack of) shoes?

Dig a little deeper. The problem here is money itself. We can control who we give it to and why, but not how it’s spent.

What if downtown merchants sold scrip we could use instead of cash?

The scrip’s value would float, set by downtown merchants and residents and published for all to see. Each dollar of scrip might be worth only 25 cents if redeemed for cash, but two dollars if spent on a bus ticket. It might be worth a full dollar at a grocery store that doesn’t sell tobacco or alcohol.

Donations and matching funds could make each dollar of scrip worth five dollars toward Lane Community College tuition or a qualifying rental unit’s security deposit. The program’s aim would be to reduce powerlessness in all, which may result in less homelessness for some.

Could a program like this work? I’m not sure. Has something like it been tried elsewhere? I’m not sure. Would Downtown Eugene Inc. or the Downtown Neighborhood Association or a local social service agency be willing to administer it? I’m not sure.

Is trying something better than doing nothing? Yes, I’m sure of that.

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