The past two years have transformed Eugene, and there’s still more change to come, Mayor Lucy Vinis said.
In the “new normal, nothing is the same as it was,” Vinis said during her annual State of the City address on Wednesday night and the second delivered virtually because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Despite the challenges of the last two years, people have continued showing up, Vinis said, even as the pandemic has shifted from a short-term crisis to “an altered trajectory across the board.” Those residents keep the community functioning and are “the backbone and the heart of this city,” she said.
Many may feel that things are stagnant. Vinis stated that there have been few advances on major issues.
“It is hard to appreciate the impact of incremental progress when you are down in the trenches — working your way, one day at a time, through enormous challenges,” she said. “We don’t see the transformation coming.”
She said that there have been small changes to transform the community. They discussed progress in addressing homelessness and ensuring equity, as well as the steps needed to move forward in the next year.
And there will be more transformation as the city moves “from what we see now to what we envision for the future,” Vinis said.
“As we move into 2022, we are not just recovering from a series of crises,” she said “Our city is using the tools available to us to find pathways, perspectives and ideas that will transform us.”
Homelessness: Pandemic “exposed the long-term problem”
As big an issue as homelessness has seemed in the past, it’s “now even bigger,” Vinis said, and definitely isn’t a short-term crisis.
“The pandemic increased the numbers, visibility and impact of people who are unsheltered; but more importantly it exposed the long-term challenge,” she said.
Homelessness, compounded by a meth epidemic and untreated mental illness in many cases, has “terrible impacts on people who are unhoused,” Vinis said, and “troubling impacts on our business community, our downtown, our parks and our sense of personal safety.”
Officials have been “bold, brave and determined” in putting in place short-term solutions such as Safe Sleep sites, Vinis said.
Even though the number of people without a place to live is “much greater than our data suggested a few years ago,” recommendations that aim to provide more beds, better outreach and data collection, and more success in helping people find stability are “still sound,” Vinis said.
She said that emergency actions continue to provide people with safer places to rest and the opportunity to transform their lives.
Vinis spoke of Samuel, a man who lived on the streets for 10 years and then moved into a shelter. He struggled to maintain a job and pay rent for untreated bipolar disorder, she stated, but the rest-stop gave him stability as well as an address.
Vinis stated that Samuel was able to get his birth certificate, identification, and two years of disability payments back. He’s now looking for housing and plans to return to school at Lane Community College, she said.
Stories like Samuel’s show the importance of short-term work to create places to sleep, she said.
Yet long-term, the city and partners need to implement a “much larger hospital of services that support recovery,” she said, meaning their work is just beginning.
Vinis has made the following commitments for the next year:
- Continuing support and advocacy for nonprofit providers to make sure they can “invest in the people with the skills and expertise to assist our unsheltered folks in transitioning from streets to stable housing and thriving lives.”
- We are pushing for more investment in mental and emotional health, including a partnership to Lane County that invests in a permanent shelter which provides navigation services and improves outreach.
- Making sure not to ignore public safety impacts, such as “aggressive behavior by some people living in vehicles, particularly in West Eugene, (that has) frightened and angered neighborhood businesses and residents,” by ensuring the city’s response to homelessness includes “compassion for the unhoused and respect for the impacts on all our community members.”
Climate change: Cities must do more than just address crises
From raging wildfires to scorching heat waves, there’s evidence of climate change right in front of us, Vinis said.
“More and more of us understand that we urgently need to reduce emissions and adapt to a new reality,” she said. “Again, we need to do more than address crises; we need to transform how we live and do business.
She stated that officials can help slow climate change in two key areas. These are increasing density and energy efficiency of housing and moving towards sustainable energy policy.
Housing is key because where and how it’s built can “reduce the climate impact of our growing population” and improving the supply will “benefit the poorest among us who are the most severely impacted by climate change,” Vinis said.
There are several “pivotal” decisions coming on housing policy, she said, including the allowance of more so-called “middle housing” such as duplexes and cottage clusters in residential neighborhoods and a possible move toward electrification of homes and other buildings.
A lot of public discussion in the past year circled around negotiations with NW Natural as officials sought to tie the gas utility’s ability to use the right-of-way without going through an approval process nearly every time to the city’s policy of reducing fossil fuel use and carbon emissions.
“Climate advocates criticized the negotiations as a waste of time; proponents of natural gas worried that we would literally turn off the gas,” Vinis said. “Our intention is to find agreement where we can but to push forward with essential transformation.”
As mayor, Vinis has a goal to move “as deliberately and quickly as we can toward electrification, but to do so realistically and fairly.”
Two important decisions were made last year by Eugene’s City Councilors. They voted to examine code changes that would require new buildings to be electrical-only, as well as to have staff create a roadmap for decarbonizing existing buildings.
Vinis stated that while officials consider making changes, they also realize that certain industries rely on natural gas and there are concerns over capacity.
“Business as usual” will change under the Climate Action Plan 2.0, she said, as the city pushes for waste prevention, energy efficiency and alternatives to tradition vehicles.
Bigger changes won’t come easily, she added, but as more people speak up, there is “hope in the widespread calls for faster action.”
Vinis pledged to focus on air quality and climate change, particularly in better addressing “pollution and climate impacts in our poorer neighborhoods,” as a member of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Local Government Advisory Council.
Equity: Not everyone feels secure here
Vinis stated that equity must be maintained in other areas of the city.
“Everyone does not feel safe in this community,” she said.
The community got that message “loud and clear” in 2020 and through discussions and the final report from the Ad Hoc Committee on Police Policy in 2021, she said. An annual report showed that hate crimes and bias crimes have increased, particularly when directed at Black and Asian citizens.
In community surveys and public testimony, people “stressed the need for alternatives to armed police officers to avoid triggering trauma among fragile members of our community,” Vinis said, and CAHOOTS getting national recognition “reinforced the call for greater mental health awareness and expertise in our public safety teams.”
She said that the city is looking at other solutions and has committed to having more unarmed community service officers.
Officials also must invest in “a well-trained and well-supported police department,” she said, as the city faces an increase in hate crimes and crime in general.
At the start of each meeting, officials recognize the city’s racist past through a land acknowledgement, Vinis said, and they “aim to shift that trajectory.”
There’s movement toward that, she said, including:
- A Climate Action Plan equity panel was created.
- Discussion on reparations
- A resolution condemning anti-Asian speech, acts and expressions
- As an act of intimidation, it is illegal to display a noose.
- Efforts to transform interactions with Tribal leadership to a “formal and respectful government-to-government relationship”
Communities that experience inequity don’t have singular experiences, Vinis said, and “shifting from erasure to truth-telling must respond to all of those different narratives.” It will take understanding and accepting the past to change, she said.
2022: Doing More and Working Together
This year, Eugene gets the chance to “demonstrate to the world our capacity for facing the transformative challenges of our era” during the World Athletics Championships track and field event, Vinis said.
Vinis said that while there has been progress, Vinis believes there is still more to be done.
She stated that sheltering people is not enough.
Vinis said that the city must also make sure that “everyone can afford a safe and secure place to live.” This will help “forge an era in which humanity is truly climate-neutral and sustainable on this one and only planet.” Eugene must also “build a community” and “a world where diversity is our most valuable characteristic,” she stated.
She admitted that none of these things are possible in today’s society.
Vinis stated, “We can be slow in finding common ground; transformation takes time and is hard to see.” “We can only get there if we continue to work together with urgency and compassion.
Contact city government watchdog Megan Banta at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @MeganBanta_1.
Watch the speech
The address of the mayor is available at https://bit.ly/eugene-sotc-22.