By Scott Hammers

The Bulletin

Heavy equipment started demolishing a building at the Bethlehem Inn on Thursday, the first step in a multimillion dollar overhaul of the homeless shelter on Bend’s north end.

Gwenn Wysling, executive director of the shelter, said the project will expand the shelter’s capacity and better connect shelter residents with the array of social services organizations and agencies that assist them.

Now able to house 75 to 90 people overnight, once complete, the shelter should be able to take in somewhere between 120 and 150 people.

This week’s demolition involves one of the two primary buildings operated by Bethlehem Inn. Trailers have been brought in to house the shelter’s offices and dining facilities during construction, while those in need of a place to stay will be housed in the still-standing building.

The new building will include a larger dining area — including the shelter’s first on-site kitchen — and offices for both shelter staff and for social services providers that frequently meet with shelter residents. The new building will also include 10 rooms suitable for families with children, doubling the number of family rooms currently available.

Launched in a county-owned building near the Deschutes County jail in the late 1990s, the shelter has been working toward an expansion nearly since it moved into a former motel on N. Third Street several years later.

“We’ve been here for 10 years, and it’s probably been 10 years in the planning to get here where we are today,” said Wysling.

Wysling said in recent years, the population served at the Bethlehem Inn has shifted toward people experiencing homelessness for the first time, many of them forced out by rising rents and a tightening housing market in the region.

”One of the trends is the majority of everyone here who can work is working; there’s just not housing,” she said. “Folks are able-bodied; they have money saved, but they’re struggling to find places to live.”

The shelter is in the early stages of planning and fundraising for the second phase of the project — building a new structure to replace the dormitory-style housing for single residents and demolishing the aging building where those residents are currently housed.

Wysling said if everything goes as hoped, work could begin on the second building as soon as the first building opens next July.

“When we move in next year, I’d like to see it on the tour of homes,” she said, “because it’s something the community built, and something the community can be really proud of.”

— Reporter: 541-383-0387,