Editorial note: Both parts of the story are included in the article. The second part and video is under ‘Possible Solutions.’
EUGENE, Ore. — On the west side of Eugene, near 9th Avenue and Grant, sits a small, nearly one-acre park. One that hasn’t been updated in decades.
Still, Martin Luther King Jr. Park has some sturdy bones and some play equipment left for children to play on. If children were playing at the park.
Jovan Leavitt, who lives near the park, said this is an uncommon occurrence.
“I’ve maybe seen one or two other families here, like once or twice,” said Leavitt.
On a somewhat sunny Thursday afternoon, Leavitt and his son Jameson decided to stop by Martin Luther King Jr. Park to play. Leavitt admitted they typically go to another park, but on that specific day he had locked himself out of his place, so the two went there while waiting for help to be let back in.
Leavitt said he typically doesn’t take his son there for safety concerns.
”There can be needles or broken glass in the bark mulch,” said Leavitt. “You sometimes see people that just look strung out.”
Leavitt isn’t the only one who is aware of the parks problems.
”It’s really common for our park ambassadors to see people openly using drugs on the playground. Drinking, smoking, or camping,” said Kelly Shadwick, the Community Engagement Manager with the City of Eugene.
Martin Luther King Jr. Park is now on the list of parks to receive restorations. It’s similar to what is happening at Washington Jefferson Park.
Despite being significantly smaller than Washington Jefferson Park, Martin Luther King Jr. Park is no less of a problem.
“I think that the part all the neighbors are concerned about from a safety standpoint are the ones that engage in illicit activity,” said Mark Kosmos, a Landscape Architect for Parks and Open Spaces. “Or [those that] yell at you when you come in the park or make you feel uncomfortable or drop needles, in the middle of the park. Or sleep and defecate under the play equipment — it’s disgusting. And it’s terrible that any neighborhood should have to deal with that.”
Kosmos is on the team in charge of restorations at the park. They are currently asking for people to take a survey to better understand what to address.
With the help of bond and levy dollars, he said he is ready to get to work. But before he can plan for future equipment and features, the team has to face a problem deeply rooted in the present.
“We have a neighborhood that really wants to be able to use the park. The top thing on the list was safety and a feeling of safety, and that’s a little difficult to hear sometimes when you’re a park planner and a park designer. Because our role and our job is to design the park and look at things like amenities,” said Kosmos.
So far, there are a few designs up for feedback. Some have options like adding more seating or shade. There’s one that looks at adding small, skate-friendly features. Also, Kosmos said there is a desire to add much more artwork and attention to the namesake of the park, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
But with safety at the forefront of everyone’s mind, Kosmos said they have have to do something called “Crime Prevention through Environmental Design.” That means they would need to level out any berms in the grass, and that in turn, would get rid of some trees. Kosmos’ said it would provide better visibility from any angle.
The total budget for the park restorations is $700,000 that is being provided by bond and levy dollars. The money can only be spent on the park and nothing else. When it comes to Washington Jefferson Park’s restoration, that project is being funded by federal dollars.
So, the money for both projects was either awarded or voted on. Still, there are some who see these restorations as a waste of money.
“It’s frustrating,” said Nolan Cogan, the owner of a property near Martin Luther King Jr. Park. “I would prefer that they would fix the root cause, and I think a lot of Eugene’s residents feel that way.”
He owns a three-bedroom home that he is currently trying to sell. It’s been on the market now for more than two months, but it continues to be passed over because of the area.
“My [previous] tenants said they felt unsafe and wanted a peephole installed in the door,” said Cogan.
The home has been vacant for a while now, and has been broken into twice. Once, while Cogan was there.
“That’s when the cops came and arrested the guy, but he was released that day,” said Cogan.
Despite the average home in Eugene spending roughly 44 days on the market, according to Realtor.com, his place doesn’t seem to be selling anytime soon
“I’ve had plenty of bites, but once they show up and see the area, most pass. They say, ‘love the house, can’t do the neighborhood.’”
He’s not in favor of the park restoration and the money being spent on it. Cogan said he wants the city to address the root issue, which is homelessness and drug use.
“It’s just a perpetual cycle that we’re just paying for and no problem is being fixed,” said Cogan. “Eugene has always been a little quirky, but it’s home. And I love this place. But its something I’m not proud of anymore. I don’t want to live here, I don’t want to own a rental here, I just want out.”
So how do you fix a park where no one wants to play? Shadwick said it starts by looking at other parks in Eugene that have undergone a similar process.
“I mean, we do have a track record. There are parks like Charnel Mulligan that used to have a lot of illicit activity. We had a park renovation there and it has changed dramatically. I mean, there is still some illicit activity from time to time but the type of illicit activity has gone way down. And you really do see families, neighbors, kids out enjoying that park again,” said Shadwick. “It can make a huge difference. So we have to be hopeful that something like that can happen here as well.”
But being hopeful only goes so far. It requires resources, funding, and enforcement. The issue also has to be looked at from a humanitarian standpoint.
“It’s not okay. I understand the difficult line that must be drawn of people sleeping in public places but they’re there for a reason, so you just keep moving them onto another park, or what are we going to do about it Oregon? That’s how I feel,” said Mauri Law, who lives near Martin Luther King Jr. Park.
Martin Luther King Jr. Park may be small in size, but it generates enough activity to keep Eugene Police busy, or at least, be on their radar.
“MLK park is one of the smallest parks in the city, but it generates a fair amount of activity,” said Police Captian Doug Mozan of the Eugene Police Department. “In the last two weeks my housing support officers have arrested at least 10 people. Some of them have also been issued park restrictions, which means they can’t come back to that park or any other park until they’ve had a period of time to cool off a little bit.”
Capt. Mozan said there is simply more work than resources at this time. Their department, like many across the country right now, are experiencing staffing shortages. That means they can’t address every call and complaint that comes in regarding the park. Especially when it comes to drug related calls.
“Oregon voters decriminalized drug use of all the types that used to be felony level offenses. That really makes it complicated because we’re not going to respond just because you see somebody shooting up in a way that we used to before. Unfortunately, there are some second- and third-order effects that we didn’t anticipate when voters passed that law,” said Mozan.
Measure 110 was designed to help more people get into treatment for drug use. Oregon’s marijuana tax would also be used to create more addiction services.
But the program has had issues, and funding for these addiction services is just now going out after two years.
It also states that people only face a $110 ticket for drug use, which can be wiped away if they call the ”Lines for Life Helpline.” But recent data shows the hotline is not being used.
“The decriminalization of Schedule One and Two narcotics has had an interesting impact, because the number of citations that have been issued for small amounts of drugs have not necessarily resulted in the kind of treatment outcomes that we hoped for,” said Mozan. “What we know is that property crime and all the other crimes connected to that kind of drug use have continued or increased since the passage of that law.”
In other words, police can only do so much when it comes to drug activity in Eugene’s parks. Still, Mozan believes that restoring parks can help deter illicit activity.
“It’s using landscaping and design as a deterrent for unwanted or dangerous activity. And essentially what it’s trying to look at is how people will use a space and then also thinking in advance about how people can misuse the space. And we know that the nicer it is for families and individuals to go and enjoy that park, the less likely there are to be antisocial behaviors. When good things are happening, bad things generally don’t,” said Mozan.
For those who use the parks as a place to stay or even sleep, then the focus shifts to available resources from the city.
“We know by the data that’s been gathered that we have thousands of people in our community who are unsheltered on any given day, and there’s not enough shelter spaces, there’s not enough affordable housing available for all of those people,” said Kelly McIver, the Communications Manager for Eugene’s Unhoused Response.
McIver said the issue within Eugene parks came to light during the COVID-19 pandemic, when Washington Jefferson Park became a temporary shelter. He was a part of getting people into the safe sleep sites once it closed for restorations. But those spots fill up fast, and demand outweighs supply in the city.
“We continue to work with our partners to try and create more of those options out there and to create more opportunities so we can get people the kind of services needed to be able to improve their stability, to get them out of homelessness to get them out of a situation of being unsheltered and to get some safety and security back in their lives, which then helps the overall community,” said McIver.
But for those who do get a spot in the shelter and receive help, it’s not a ‘cure-all.’ McIver said there’s not a guarantee that putting someone in a program for six months or a year means they’ll be fine for the rest of their life.
“An issue is, of course, that you need a lot of work to be able to try and get people to a place when they’ve been chronically homeless, to be able to have a safe place to be, that then they can build from that housing or shelter situation so that they can then begin to look at how can they seek and maintain employment, how can they keep their personal health? How can they maintain the positive connections to be able to to make sure that they’re staying healthy and reintegrating with the rest of the community in a positive way?” said McIver.
And yes, there are people who do not want to be in a shelter at all. They may be the ones you see at city parks in the day or night. Camping is illegal overnight in all city parks, but there are not enough people between the city and police to constantly keep tabs.
“Typically police are having to focus on the most serious kinds of calls for service in the overnight hours. So kind of checking through parks and other public spaces is not something that they’re able to do at the same level that it would take to sort of ensure that that behavior was never occurring,” said McIver.
And for those seen at parks not doing drugs or anything harmful, the fact of the matter is they have every right to be there as the next person. McIver wants to remind the community that it’s fine if people look different than others. He said as long as the behaviors are the ones in abidance with the rules the city has set out for parks, they are okay to be there.
It’s clear the police, the city, and community members are well aware of the issue surrounding Eugene’s parks.
They are working towards short-term solutions, like hiring more staff, and working to increase shelter space. There also could be hope in the Measure 110 money that, after two years, is now being sent out to increase outreach, recovery housing, and needle exchanges.
There is also hope in the two park restorations and the changes made to the landscape, called Crime Prevention through Environmental Design.
When it comes to long-term solutions, there’s a need for more funding and mental health services. It’s something that is not unique to Eugene, instead, it’s an issue throughout Oregon.
These are problems that don’t get solved over night. And they take more than one person, one department, one elected official. It also comes from the community, on what gets voted on, and making your voice heard.
It comes down to facing tough issues head on, and not stopping until a compromise can be reached, so community spaces can be enjoyed safely by everyone.
“We know it’s going to be hard. We know it’s going to be a long-term challenge. But I think what citizens can be assured of is that we’re committed to this because we understand it’s important not just for the people and their families who are suffering from homelessness, but for the livability and the health of our entire community,” said McIver.