June 20, 2024

Whole Community News

From Kalapuya lands in the Willamette watershed

Eugene park rules challenged in federal court

3 min read
The lawsuit challenges the constitutionality of four rules being applied to over 5,000 acres of public space in Eugene.

from Civil Liberties Defense Center

In the face of an ongoing housing crisis in Oregon, two activists for the unhoused have filed a federal lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of Eugene’s park rules.

Activists Nicholas Hollows and Samuel Yergler are asking the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon to declare four of the park rules unconstitutional and to enjoin the city from enforcing them. 

“The city of Eugene had me arrested for speaking out against the inhumane treatment of the unhoused in our community,” said Plaintiff Samuel Yergler. “If this was the case for me, simply calling attention to their cruelty, imagine how they treat people experiencing homelessness. The local government and police work hand in hand to send a powerful message: the poor, the destitute, and the hungry are not welcome in Eugene.” 

The park rules allow police officers and others to punish speech and conduct—protected by the First Amendment—through a range of onerous penalties. Those include a fine of up to $500, up to 30 days in jail, and an order excluding the person from more 5,000-plus acres of public space in the city, where many people seek temporary rest and respite.

The duration of the exclusion order can be any length, at the total discretion of the officer or other enforcer. In addition, the rules allow law enforcement and others arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement power, with no effective safeguards to prevent abuse, and no meaningful right of review.

Park rules penalties were enforced against both plaintiffs. In two separate incidents, for speaking out against the city’s draconian treatment of unhoused people, Mr. Yergler and Mr. Hollows were each arrested and then banished from all city-managed property.

“We are filing this lawsuit not only because we want to protect other activists’ right to call out unfair and unwise law enforcement and government practices exacted on the unhoused community, but also because we want to remove a tool from government’s toolbox to systemically drive people out of the city by force,” said plaintiff Nicholas Hollows. “It’s a disgusting practice – these policies are not just cruel to the unhoused, they’re also deeply corrosive to the moral health of this community, and I know we can do better.”  

The lack of oversight of law enforcement and other municipal enforcers in public spaces is a national issue, but is quite acute in the Eugene, where the housing crisis is extreme.

Lane County official data shows that, as of September 2023 (most recent data), 4,563 people were unhoused, about 3,377 in Eugene. 

When nationally compared to other similarly sized counties, Lane County experienced the second-largest number of people experiencing chronic homelessness.

Another lawsuit was filed last week by the Oregon Law Center on behalf of currently and recently unhoused Eugenians, challenging the city’s policy and practice of banning and trespassing unhoused residents from all parks and open spaces.

The Civil Liberties Defense Center supports movements that seek to dismantle the political and economic structures at the root of social inequality and environmental destruction.

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