Oregon’s second-largest city, Eugene, is located in a bucolic part of the state along Interstate-5. Set against low mountains, it is only an hour from the state’s legendary beaches and rocky coast. Its temperate climate has also attracted a problem that’s plaguing the entire West Coast: Rampant homelessness. The local police chief says the scene in Eugene is the worst he’s ever seen.
Its largest newspaper, the Eugene Register-Guard, just got lauded by the Poynter Institute for its ongoing editorial project on homelessness. The reason this caught my eye is that the Register-Guard is one of the most religion-free newspapers I’ve ever seen. And that's saying a lot in the Pacific Northwest where the religion coverage everywhere is pretty sparse.
But with homelessness, I thought, they can’t avoid the faith element, can they?
But avoid it they have. On Feb. 12, the newspaper said in an editorial:
Our goal in this project is to highlight efforts locally and elsewhere that are proving successful, examine what it will take to improve and expand those efforts, and to identify how local organizations can work more efficiently and collaboratively to close gaps in the system. The editorial page coverage will be supplemented by periodic Register-Guard news articles on the issue. And because this project will be a journey for all of us, we’ll adjust plans along the way.
I found several of parts of their project. Here’s a March 9 piece about a local elementary school helping the homeless; a March 19 piece about domestic violence contributing to homelessness; and then a piece that ran last fall about an affordable housing project for the poor. There was also an editorial last fall about that same effort.
But what about the part that churches played in getting such projects off the ground? In 2014, Religion & Ethics Newsweekly traveled from Washington, DC to do a piece about Opportunity Village, a set of small houses for the homeless. They were able to get information about First Christian Church of Eugene's involvement with the village. Even the Oregonian, which was 111 miles to the north, covered the village.
But when the Register-Guard wrote about it, also in 2014, the faith mentions were pretty peripheral. Same with their more recent piece on the Eugene Mission, a Christian shelter for the homeless. We talk a lot in this blog about "ghosts" in religion copy which are reminders of religion angles that exist but were simply not included in a given story. Well, I'd call what the Register-Guard produces as "religion wraiths." There's a mention, but it's quite skeletal in the way of credit or background about the "why" these church groups are tackling homelessness.
In a Feb. 16 piece about the problem (which came with a photo of a young man, seated on a blanket with his dog, begging for “laundry and vegan food”), the newspaper says:
A consultant on Wednesday delivered a blunt critique of downtown Eugene, telling city leaders the public perception that the area is unsafe has reached “crisis level” and is thwarting its potential to become more vibrant.
The city hired New York-based Project for Public Spaces to recommend ways to make downtown’s public spaces safer, welcoming and more active, following the firm’s community outreach and survey efforts. The firm presented numerous concepts for the city’s consideration during the meeting.
Meg Walker, the firm’s vice president and design director, said it has found problems with the homeless in other cities, but the situation in downtown Eugene is at a “crisis level and it must be addressed.”
(She added), “I’ve worked all over the country, and many of my colleagues have, (and) I don’t think I’ve seen anything quite this serious...Many residents said they don’t come downtown because they feel unsafe or intimated, and that loiterers are “dominating” its public spaces, including Park Blocks, located at Eighth Avenue and Oak Street, and Broadway Plaza, Walker said.
The homeless aren't going away any time soon, so here's hoping the Register-Guard will make good on its intent to highlight the good things that the locals are doing to erase the problem. And a lot of those locals may have religious reasons for doing so.
Is it asking too much for Eugene's major newspaper to devote generous time and space as to the God-shaped reasons for why these folks do what they do?