It had been a while since I had spent much time at either of our two designated camping sites for the unhoused in Cottage Grove.
With three city councilors under threat of recall due to the public’s displeasure on how the City of Cottage Grove has attempted to navigate the Boise and the Grants Pass court decisions, as well as Oregon law HB 3115 and HB 3124, I thought it high time to get back to actively and regularly checking in and seeing for myself what is transpiring in those campsites.
What I found was a community that was somehow succeeding despite all odds.
During my visit, a number of residents from both sites expressed a desire to sit down and talk. We gathered at a local park and sat around expressing their experiences, hopes, concerns, challenges, and triumphs. Some just listened, nodding in agreement, others were more expansive, but here is what some of our unhoused citizens had to say in their own words:
“We are grateful for what has been provided for us. We have the ability to volunteer, and we want and need to do stuff to benefit the community at large. We want to give back to Cottage Grove.”
“Our plan is to start with ourselves and work toward site cleanliness. This will generate responsibility, pride, and energy. We will have chores and a process to get the camp where we want it to be, healthy and good for all.”
“We see all of the good and all of the bad, and the things that are not so obvious to everyone. Like, it is pretty obvious that the ones in here didn’t make the conscious decision to become homeless. Often it is untreated or diagnosed mental conditions that lead people to their position. Other times it could be a death in the family that leads to losing their place – like my sister who cared for our father until he died, then my brother sold the house and told her she had to go, and she had nothing and nowhere to go.”
“We look out for each other. If a stranger comes milling around, we ask them who they are and then to leave if no one knows them.”
“The fence is an issue; you aren’t supposed to hang anything on it so there is no privacy. What real protection does it provide? You put so many people on a pad of three quarter minus; it’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter … Water at one end only, and we have trouble with gray water disposal.”
“Clearly there needs to be more control from within – a camp mayor or leader that enough people are willing to follow. Maybe we should rip down the rules and start over with rules that we make ourselves, self-governing is the best. If we could eat together that would build community.”
“I haven’t slept in nights because of someone yelling. With untreated mental illness, it is like a looneybin. We have a lot of people with a lot of issues. We try to de-escalate matters and work together to calm people down but it’s very hard to deal with, because it’s on a daily basis.”
“One problem is that officers telling people that they are directing to the camps that, ‘They don’t have rules’ so some folks are surprised that we do, in fact, have rules. Our basic rule is that we try to look out for everybody – the golden rule.”
“If we could start some raised beds and grow food that would be good for everybody. Having plants and growing things is healthy.”
“I know we get blamed for making trash but we see locals coming and dropping off stuff in the dumpster. A free garbage drop and we see landscaping crews pulling in.”
“We know that people look down on us, but some of us have jobs and are trying to get clean so we can go to work, and then come back to living in a tent. It’s a lot harder than if you got a real place to live. I think some people are angry because they are having a really hard time making it and know that they could end up here pretty easily.”
“I want this to be a centerpiece of how things could work, where we recognize the worth of everyone and everyone’s unique attributes. I see this as a golden opportunity; if we took all the skills, talents, and what they have learned through the trades, we could build infrastructure and repurpose things that are heading for the dump. I view trash as a golden opportunity.”
“If we can’t make people leave, we have no way to control behavior. They need to act in a societal manner. There needs to be general consensus on the way neighbors should treat each other.”
There was a lot of agreement that things can and should be improved and that change is best if it comes organically from within by consensus. Community circles are starting to happen in the camps and some reluctant leaders are starting to step up, often with folks at their backs.
It is a work in progress, but positive steps are happening.
On one of my first visits, after learning that I was on the council, one resident challenged that “you wouldn’t spend a night here” at the homeless camp.
I asked if I was being invited, and on affirmation I showed up that night with a tarp, pad, and bedroll. I had planned to sleep under the stars. but my hosts had prepared a small tent for me because of a chance of rain.
I felt very welcomed, safe, and respected and vowed to spend one night a week in each camp so we can keep the community conversation going and improve things in the sites. A number of the camp residents had asked about the City Council meetings and if they could go. I was extremely proud to have a delegation from both camps at a recent city council meeting, including those who found the courage to offer their voices to those of their fellow citizens.
Dana Merryday was elected to the Cottage Grove City Council in November 2022 and serves Ward 3. He wrote this for The Chronicle. He can be reached at 541-942-5216 and