Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Eugene Scene

Here in the Eug' we're having a little issue. More than one downtown shop owner has complained of "street people" and teenagers peeing, defecating, and writing obscenities and racial slurs on their shops. The proposed solution? Greater "crackdown" on loitering teenagers and dirty old homeless people and the right to BAN certain people from the downtown area without conviction of a crime.

I'm only kind of torn on this. I really do agree that peeing and writing the n word on shop is threatening and totally inexcusable. But that doesn't mean that you can take away people's right to be in public spaces. If there are benches in front of the library, they're meant to be SAT ON. If there are tables in Kesey Square, they're meant for people to gather and enjoy the space.

What it comes down to is that the people with money and influence don't want to look at undesirables. The ability to banish people from downtown would really only apply to teens and homeless people. Can you imagine a downtown guard asking a group of greyheaded old ladies to move along from the benches in front of the library? Can you imagine a bunch of soccer moms with kids in tow being told they can't gather on the sidewalk while they give their toddlers organic Cherrios? It wouldn't happen.

Teens are threatening to respectable folk because those people know that they haven't given them the respect they deserve as human beings. They've been written off on account of their age, expected to make trouble, and what young person fighting for acknowledgment of their worth is going to want to smile and be sweet to people who make them feel like criminals?

My suggestion is not to be afraid. Carry your toddler into the library, right past the congregation of teens, and smile. Wish them a good afternoon. Compliment their mohawks. I don't care as long as you show respect. I feel that people on this side of success in their lives don't recognize their responsibility to be the bigger person, not in a "better than you" or "more right to be here" kind of way, but recognizing that some people have growing to do. Please realize that respect should be given unconditionally, no matter if the person is a shop owner, professor, homeless person, or teen.

Teens, prove them wrong. Prove your right to be in public spaces by resisting the urge to puff out your chest and claim your territory. That goes for everyone. Don't abuse your right to public spaces by claiming them as your own. Downtowns should be places for everyone who shows respect, and that involves sharing. You learned it in kindergarten. Can't we just share downtown?


Brave New Sarah said...

Hey Hannah! Found your blog through livejournal. What to do about the "undesirables" downtown is a debate that it's been going on in Eugene ever since I was a youngster. And I think you really hit it right on the head - all people deserve respect and the right to be in a public space - and shopkeepers and everyone else deserves the right not be hassled for change or have property defaced.

What comes to my mind is why the teenagers are there... Back in my day (well, I'm only 25 but I still had a day that has long passed!), there was an all-ages pool hall, and Paradiso was open til the wee hours for all-ages open mike, coffee, chess, studying, etc. I think having more all-ages activities around would help a great deal. But even more so, in an ideal world, the teenagers would also be busy studying, playing sports, being in plays, spending time with their families, hiking up at the Butte, bike riding, doing poetry night, and all sorts of other things other than being bored downtown. Kids on the street often only have "street family" - and don't have a safe or supportive home to be at instead. This, I think, is the real problem.

I know of at least one organization (LEAD) that was developed for this specific purpose - to help street kids in Eugene find a place, find productive things to do, find support, friends, companionship, etc. I know they had to overcome a lot of discrimination and ageism when trying to get their space (last I heard they had a really teeny place near the DAC) and had to petition the city council and local businesses to do it. Business owners discouraged the organization, preferring instead of oust the teens through policing and creating criminals out of bored kids from bad homes.

My feelings about the homeless folks are about the same. One of the best models for dealing with this problem is the Union Station Program in Pasadena, CA. (I am a social worker and took a tour there just to learn about it - it's awesome!) The city itself is beautiful and clean, and like any city, also has its share of homeless individuals and families. A shelter/supportive living program created a "street team" and recruited the local police force, businesses, and workers at the shelter to combat the problem. When the police wander upon a homeless man sleeping in a park (not legal), they take down his name, any other info they can gather, and bring him to the shelter. There, he is seen by a case manager who asses his needs (does he need mental health care? Medical care?) and puts together a plan. If he is found again, the police/shelter already have a file on him and can better serve them knowing a little about them. This type of model works great, but requires that community members (police, businesses) overcome their own stereotypes and support people instead of criminalizing them. It also involves tax money, so...yeah.

It's really ironic to me that people never want to pay tax money for things like homeless shelters, but instead support criminalizing people on the street to make it a nicer place. Doing so just puts the cost right back on the taxpayers (policing and jail is a hell of a lot more expensive - let me tell you!) and feeds the cycle of poverty.

Anonymous said...

Hi there, came here through LJ. I agree with your post, and with "brave new sarah"'s suggestions on how to deal with it. Every time I see the police on the street hassling some homeless guy, it makes me angry, because I'm betting he didn't do anything to warrant it. Sure, property defacement is wrong, but you can't convict an entire subculture of one incident - find the person who did it and punish them if you can, but you can't punish everyone who might look like they did it. That seems like it should be obvious in a 'free society', but I guess not.

My only caveat to all of this... when I was a teenager back East, something similar to this crackdown was happening in my city, and the police were constantly harassing us for just hanging out in a public square somewhat near businesses. But the thing was, we were being very polite and off to the side not bothering anyone. Whereas there are days when I can barely shove through the crowd of loud, smoking, belligerent teens in front of the library. If they would just show some kind of courtesy to the other human beings trying to use the same space, I would be a lot more sympathetic to them.

Hannah said...

I'm not opposed to security guards asking people to step away from the doors (didn't see them doing that to the peace protesters this weekend) or asking smokers to move to the smoking area, but the incidents that I saw were guards in police-like uniforms asking crusty teens to leave the benches they were sitting on.

Anonymous said...

I have seen police officers asking teens to leave the benches they were sitting on, but as someone who sits quietly in places without really being noticed by others, its usually for a reason and not just because they are teenagers. Usually, the teenagers have done something, like yelling at passersby using all sorts of obscenities and gestures that are unwarranted, that prompts the officers and shopkeepers to ask the teenagers to leave. I can't really imagine a soccer mom feeding her toddler yelling "F*** you" and giving someone the finger to random people walking by.
I do agree that something does need to be done about activities for teenagers to do later at night. Besides bowling and movies, there really is nothing.

Hannah said...

I don't know why my own comment was deleted...anyways, I'd like to vouch for LEAD as a totally amazing program. I was a volunteer mentor this past year, and I learned more from the teens than they did from me, I bet. I even learned to juggle :) The teen center is great because it's a place that youth can come and just be, but the commitments can scare off some. Still, I think it's important to put out some expectations and show the teens that adults believe in their potential.

Brave New Sarah said...

That is so awesome! If I ever make any millions in social work (haha), LEAD will be high on my list of charitable contributions. I'm glad to hear they're still up and running strong with awesome volunteers.

I agree with you about the commitment LEAD asks of its youth - I think it's part the youth commit to that really creates change in their lives, and this is what distinguishes LEAD from other organizations that just give handouts. Nothing against handouts, but handouts don't tend to drastically change people's lives. :)