Tuesday, November 28, 2017, was quite the day in Eugene, at least according to our daily paper, the Register Guard. The newspaper provided information on five stories that made up page one of the City Region section of the paper. One of those stories dealt with an intergenerational mural being created at Springfield High School that’s being installed on the school’s front side December, 2017. Here was a feel good piece that resonated with my wife’s and my expectations of a small, bucolic college town in the pacific northwest to which we would enjoy moving after a lifetime spent on the east coast. The other four stories were darker, as we shall explore later in this Reflection.
We were in stage one of preparing for old age. The advice most commonly proffered is either to live near one of your adult children (if that’s a viable option) or live in a community designed to pick up the pieces you are beginning to drop. Eugene was home to our older daughter and she enthusiastically encouraged our settling there. That dealt with the “where” and “why.” As to the “what,” we looked at possible residences that ranged from independent living in condo developments to apartments that provided services known in the health care industry as “full care.” It’s nice to know that such arrangements can be made and, at some future time will be carefully weighed.
Making the move to Eugene required us to practice some financial discipline for our current expenses and the ones coming down the road. The most likely new charges will all be tied into health care costs, though which limb or internal organ would be the first to fail is, at best, an educated guess. Finding doctors that are both competent and caring is a universal exploration, though in smaller markets like Eugene the supply is limited. What remains is a race for the specialist you need, with timely access when a crisis occurs.
To understand what underlies the vibrancy of Eugene, our newly adopted city, you have to know where to look, and the local newspaper seemed like a good reference point. I mentioned five stories that appeared on a single day in the Register Guard, with four of them sharing at least one major element in common. They all dealt with crimes that had been committed in or near the Eugene.
Let me provide a brief overview of the stories carried by the newspaper. The first involved a charity raffle and proceeds that were being raised to end child abuse. A former club captain for the Eugene Airport Rotary has been arrested for keeping more than $5,000 worth of raffle ticket proceeds. In the second story, a twenty-six year old male from Eugene lit a fire in a Dumpster next to his neighbor’s home but then proceeded to put the fire out himself before the police arrived. What seems sad about these events is that the fire setter is charged with first-degree arson, a crime that carries with it a mandatory 7.5 year minimum sentence. I don’t know whether the charge will be reduced as matters unfold, but as it presently stands, the arsonist is going to serve a long prison term that will dramatically hurt his opportunity to pursue a career, learn a trade, attend school, or follow a dream. When we take criminals off the streets and put them into prisons, it is quite common for them to return to society as hardened, angry, and in some cases sociopathic adults.
There are two more crime stories reported by the Register Guard of November 28, 2017. In Junction City, a stone’s throw from Eugene, a Mobil gas station was robbed by a person wearing a spiderman mask and brandishing a toy gun who fled the scene on foot, leaving behind the mask and part of the stolen money. Somehow it would have seemed more sinister if the robbery had taken place at 2:00 am instead of 2:00 pm, when the theft actually took place. If it weren’t for the unpredictability of violence, there is something about the “Gang Who Couldn’t Shoot Straight” that makes you want to smile at the fumbling nature of the heist.
The top story – and the most disturbing one of the four reported stories – involved three teens who committed a robbery and threatened to use a gun. One of the robbers jumped into the Willamette river and was pulled out by a police dog; the second youth was subdued by a beanbag shot fired by the police, and the third was arrested in Eugene without incident. Among the stolen booty was a smart phone. Unfortunately for the teens, the smart phone had an app that was used to track the phone’s location that found the teens and their swag. Eugene police, Springfield police, and University of Oregon police all were engaged in resolving this incident promptly after it occurred.
Because it’s a small city, everything gets noticed – and most events get reported. We have a population of homeless folks that in summer hang around Eugene’s main square, and in less pleasant weather, either seek shelter under bridges and roadways or in limited housing maintained for the homeless. When the weather turns particularly harsh, churches and other non-profits open up their facilities for emergency relief. From there it’s not a major step to realize that food and medical care are needs in search of a solution.
When I wrote these words I didn’t know that the next morning a major article would appear in in the Register Guard with a headline that said West Coast struggles as nation’s homeless population rises. To get an idea of the magnitude of the problem, the article lists the total homeless in the United States at about 554,000, with 193,000 of this group without access to nightly shelter. The number of unsheltered persons is up by 9 percent over the size of the group two years ago. The article pointed out that “the explosion in homelessness has prompted at least 10 city and county governments to declare states of emergency since 2015.” While homelessness is down nationally, homelessness is exploding in Washington, Oregon, and California. In those states the number of homeless is up 14 percent, and those without nightly shelter is up 23 percent. In Seattle, a state with a booming economy, has watched its unsheltered population grow by 44 percent over a two-year period.
So far the financial burden of providing needed services appears too large for local government. There is concern that if government tried to fill these gaps in care, the homeless population would grow in response. It’s an issue that occurs in cities of all sizes throughout America. And it’s not the first sign of a problem – it’s the last. Because government at all levels tend to view homelessness as an issue of will instead of an issue of need, private foundations, religious organizations, and individuals continually step into this breach to alleviate suffering.
We need fresh ideas, untried experiments, new contracts that provide opportunities for the homeless population. A housing program initiated in the State of Utah succeeded in reducing its homeless population by 91 percent. Cities and counties where homelessness is a major issue need to study that program and other actions municipalities are now undertaking to consider what components of these programs would be most effective if transferred to inquiring states.
The homeless are comprised of several subsets, facing different challenges and different needs. A substantial part of the homeless population are veterans suffering from post traumatic stress. Many of their behavioral issues developed during their military service and programs designed to offer them relief are distinct from programs designed to support those who are homeless by choice. Many of the homeless in this larger category are referred to as “travelers”– a much younger age group of homeless that hunger for a kind of freedom that minimizes responsibilities such as a steady job. These travelers are generally between 18 – 25, use drugs, and travel from location to location spontaneously.
We have two ways of addressing the need without breaking the budget:
The first is to elect legislators willing to transform the need into a platform and work to elect those officials to government posts;
The second is to decide as an individual, as a family, as a neighborhood, how we shall respond to the homeless that approach us directly, asking for money, and to those that approach us silently, using only signs and placards to communicate with us that they are in need, in pain, and alone.
As I try to evaluate Eugene as my retirement community, I get to put on the plus or minus side of the ledger things that matter to me that enhance my days or detract from them. A symphony, ballet company, string quartets, community theatres (at least three) are strong pluses for a city with a population of only 165,000.
On the negative side, the U.S. Department of Education reported that the graduation rates from high schools ranked Oregon 48th in the nation, only slightly better than Nevada and New Mexico. Iowa ranked first with a 91.3 percent graduation rate (Oregon was at 74.8 percent). That’s an unacceptable ranking. We need to invest in our youth, find different ways of holding on to them while we provide meaningful opportunities for the future (theirs and ours) and not just dismiss dropouts to fend for themselves in the marketplace without the tools needed to prosper. I plan to dig more deeply into the causes that make the graduation rate scream out for a response, and see whether I can nudge our legislators to invite a more public dialogue.
As I review this writing, parts of it seem untethered, wanting to float as a balloon might float, exploring, darting, defiant. When you decide where the last third of your life is going to be spent, images flit onto and off the screen almost by happenstance. Do the other apartment dwellers seem open and warm? How close will we get to the qualities we enjoyed on the east cost? What surprises do we face? What do we value most? The mind dashes to many images – and from this jumble emerges a view.
We are here – and subject to disruptions we cannot predict – here is where we plan to stay. I am involved with our daughter and son-in-law at least weekly, and our interactions bring me both pride and joy. I would like to take credit for shaping her values and skills and sensitivity. But in reality her best qualities are ones she came into this world already possessing, and our best parenting was the wisdom simply to step back and allow those qualities that are her unique signature to develop and mature at its own pace.
I want be relevant wherever I settle. At my age I am motivated to be involved where the subject interests me, where I have some experience, and where I am motivated to be of service. In Eugene I’ve joined the Oregon Lifelong Learning Institute and am seated as a member of their senior administrative council and teach creative writing as one of their programs. At the time of this writing my wife is in her mid-seventies and I am nearing eighty. It’s too late to be faint hearted – and it’s no fun. As Goethe said
Whatever you can do,
Or dream you can do,
Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.
Begin it now.
George Kaufman – December 2017 ©