Is Sleep a Human Right?

Oct 28, 2013

Homeless activists have made headlines in Eugene since the Occupy movement of 2011 brought issues of income inequality to the forefront. There aren't enough shelter beds for the nearly 2000 homeless people in the area. For several months different groups have set up tent camps on public property trying to bring awareness to the problem. They say safe, legal places to sleep are a human right that the city is violating with its camping ban.

Homeless people have been camped in high-profile places in Eugene to raise awareness of their plight.
Credit Rachael McDonald

Hurlburt: "My name is Tod Hurlburt. Here in the camp, they call me Tinman."

Hurlburt is de-facto leader of a group which has dubbed itself Whoville. A handful of homeless people has set up small tent communities on public land around Eugene for the past 2 months. Instead of hunkering down by the river or in the woods, they're in high profile places like this vacant lot on a busy street corner near the University of Oregon campus.  On a sunny fall morning, Hurlburt shows me around.
Hurlburt: "This here is our kitchen area. Usually in the morning it's coffee. And during the day, everybody just kind of fends for themselves and we try to do a dinner."
The kitchen consists of a Weber grill set up near an open-sided tent over a table stacked with containers and food. On the grill, coffee percolates.
Hurlburt says he became homeless after an injury made it difficult to work. He’s waiting to have surgery. One advantage to these camps is safety in numbers… generally between 15 and 30 people stay here at one time.
A city ordinance bans camping on public land—which some say is a violation of human rights.
Allie Valkyrie is a local activist for homeless issues.
Valkyrie: "Even if at one point they made a choice to be homeless at this moment they still can't afford shelter. They don't deserve to be criminalized for engaging in a life-sustaining activity that, as far as I'm concerned, all creatures that are born on this earth have a right to sleep. We don't charge the deer for sleeping in the forest."
Whoville folks have been ticketed by Eugene police and had to move camp numerous times.
Homeless activist group, SLEEPS, was evicted from their tent camp in the Free Speech Plaza outside the Lane County Building. Valkyrie was arrested last December for staying in the plaza after the county closed it for cleaning. She won a Municipal Court case claiming that the closure of Free Speech Plaza violated the First Amendment right to assembly.
Another argument against the ban is on 8th Amendment grounds… that preventing someone from sleeping amounts to cruel and unusual punishment. University of Oregon Law Professor Ofer Raban spoke on the issue at a recent Eugene City Club.
Raban: “If a person has no money for shelter there is nothing that that person can immediately do but to sleep at some public place and therefore to violate the law.”
The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals found a violation of the 8th amendment in a case from Los Angeles involving homeless people sleeping on sidewalks.
Richie Weinman is retired from the City of Eugene. He used to be their point person on homeless issues. He says the problem of homelessness became more acute in the down economy. But that the city has responded as much as it can—given its own limited resource.
Weinman: " I think we try really hard as a community to step up to that and this is a hard problem to solve. It's really beyond our capability of solving."
The city has recently created an Oppurtunity Village, where up to 30 people can live in micro-houses called Conestoga Huts. They’re looking into establishing so-called “rest stops” legal temporary camps like the ones the Whovilles have set up. The idea is not to spend tax-payer money but instead rely on donations to pay for porta-potties and maintenance.
McBride: “My name is Heather McBride. I’m 21 years old.”
McBride has been staying at Whoville for a couple of weeks. She says she tried to live with her family, but couldn’t get along with her father. She’s studying to get her GED. She feels safer with the folks at Whoville than when she’s been on her own.
McBride: “I definitely like being at camp. These people are my friends. Nobody goes cold here."
McBride and others are optimistic the city will allow them to continue camping. Activist Ally Valkyrie:
Valkyrie: "I'm really hoping that something comes forward which is tangible before that hope starts to die out. I much prefer the hope over the anger."
It’s uncertain whether the “rest stop” proposals will work out. A lot depends on the kindness of community members who have been donating food, money and help.  Meanwhile the cold, wet weather is coming and a tent is meager protection from the elements.
The Eugene City Council will consider 5 proposed sites for homeless “rest stops” at their meeting Monday.