FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
January 18, 2023
Sarah Alvarez, Staff Attorney
(541) 687-9180 or firstname.lastname@example.org
City of Eugene Drops Charges Against Houseless Advocate Who Spoke Out Against City Manager at the Downtown Riverfront Park Grand Opening
Eugene, Oregon—Sam Yergler, a Eugene resident and houseless advocate, was prepared to go to trial this month to defend himself against charges of “violation of park rules” that were brought against him in June 2022. Mr. Yergler also faced a “park ban” from all City parks, open spaces, and city facilities for an act of free speech. In the past week, the City of Eugene motioned to dismiss the charges and the park ban stating that “the city no longer has a compelling interest” in the cases.
In June 2022, the City of Eugene held a public grand opening and ribbon cutting ceremony at the first completed leg of the Downtown Riverfront Park project that began in 2018. Mr. Yergler verbally criticized the project and City leaders from the crowd during remarks from Craig Carnegey, Director of Parks and Open Space, and Sarah Medary, Eugene City Manager. Despite the public, open invitation to the event, he was removed and cited with a park violation. The citation restricted him from returning to the park, and he was ultimately criminally charged in Eugene Municipal Court for violating park rules.
“When I saw the invite for the grand opening, I was really upset because Sarah Medary and other city officials refused to speak with houseless advocates who camped in front of her office demanding an end to the sweeps. The city targets people for being unhoused and sweeps them from their homes, but at the same time they’re having self-congratulatory parties. It didn’t sit right with me that the city says it can’t afford to house people, but they can throw parties for land deals that benefit developers,” said Mr. Yergler.
People experiencing houselessness and housing insecurity face immense challenges in Eugene, which has a higher-than-average rate of people who experience such issues. In 2019, Eugene had the highest homelessness rate of any city in the country, and since then it has increased by nearly 50%.
Being treated with basic human dignity is among the top of these challenges. The City of Eugene has contributed to this dehumanization through repeated sweeps of encampments and further limitations on freedom of movement for those who live outside. “The prosecution of Mr. Yergler was an extension of the dehumanization and criminalization unhoused folks face locally. Mr. Yergler was removed from the park during a public event for directly and clearly calling out the city for its misconduct against the unhoused. Vocal criticism of your government in the public sphere is squarely protected by the first amendment,” said Sarah Alvarez, a Civil Liberties Defense Center staff attorney who represented Mr. Yergler.
Mr. Yergler said he “became passionate about the unhoused while participating in the Catholic Worker in Los Angeles, helping to feed as many as 1,000 people a day.” He went on to say that while he was happy with the dismissal in his case “the ordinance they tried to prosecute me under is used all the time against the unhoused community, who don’t have time or resources to fight it. It’s wrong every time they do it. Which is why I knew I needed to fight my charges.”