As nights get colder, Bend-area shelters and churches are preparing to provide shelter for more families left outside — and one church is searching for a new location to serve homeless people downtown.
Once temperatures consistently reach about 25 degrees, Bend City Manager Eric King can declare a cold weather emergency, thus relaxing rules so shelters like Bethlehem Inn and Shepherd’s House can let more people in to sleep and interested churches or businesses can temporarily house people. These emergency cold shelters need to be approved by the city’s fire department, and the city can’t compel any property owner to open up space.
“We can’t force people to have temporary shelters in place,” King said.
Bend Church, a Methodist church downtown, had a low-barrier shelter — meaning it allowed pets and didn’t screen for alcohol or drugs — for women and children last winter. The church still wants to help, Pastor Dave Beckett said, but it won’t host a shelter at its Wall Street location this year.
“We discovered it was not the best mix to have a low-barrier shelter in the church,” Beckett said.
Last winter, Bend Church sheltered 92 women, 14 children and between 14 and 16 dogs, said Stacey Witte, director of homeless outreach. Since March, the church had been looking for a new location for its cold shelter without much success, but she hopes to find something by the end of the week. Ideally, the location would be downtown, Witte said.
“The nice thing about being downtown is that all the other services are accessible,” she said.
Last winter, staff stayed all night with the women and children, and Bend Church served dinner and breakfast. Witte said the church would continue its outreach at a new location.
“The mission is really to keep people alive and give people hope,” she said.
Ron “Rondo” Boozell, a longtime Bend resident and frequent city council candidate, suggested working toward a permanent non-church shelter by first making a temporary cold shelter on Troy Field downtown by putting up a large tent with portable heaters. The Bend City Council is not interested in putting a tent on Troy Field, which it doesn’t own, and city code already prohibits any camping in the city, though there are illegal homeless camps in parts of Bend.
A low-barrier shelter elsewhere would allow churches to help people without worrying about them stealing or damaging church property, and it would allow people to avoid frostbite even if they drink or do drugs or have pets, he said.
“We’ve got the money to take care of people,” he said. “Amid all this prosperity, we’re still concerned every winter about fingers and toes.”
Bend could spend city money on temporary shelters, Councilor Barb Campbell said, but the city focuses more on providing permanent housing. Campbell, along with Councilors Bruce Abernethy and Nathan Boddie, is working with others in Deschutes County on a housing-first model of addressing homelessness.
A housing-first model first moves people living on streets or in shelters into their own homes, then works on underlying issues that may have led to their homelessness. People don’t have to be sober or employed to be helped by the program.
“The first thing anyone needs to be able to get out of homelessness is a bed and a roof,” she said. “No one can find a job unless they can get a shower.”
However, the city recently agreed to help pay for private security downtown to address concerns local businesses had about aggressive panhandlers, Campbell noted. It could do the same for Bend Church or other downtown churches providing emergency shelters, she said.
Joe Keeton, a homeless man who returned to Bend from Phoenix in 2016, was able to couch-surf for the first part of the winter but found himself camping outside during the remainder of it. He learned from a homeless woman how to survive long nights with freezing temperatures, bone-chilling winds and snow flurries.
“If you’ve ever been in that kind of snow, where the elements are becoming too severe to accommodate oneself, you need things,” he said. “You’re not going to survive by sheer strength.”
Keeton spent one night at the emergency cold shelter at Shepherd’s House, after a normally quick walk to a store took hours in the snow and he realized he couldn’t make it back to his campsite. But for the most part, he tries to avoid shelters, instead finding ways to take care of himself.
Offering shelter during extreme weather absolutely helps, Keeton said, but it’s not enough. What really helps, he said, is showing homeless people that they matter as much as people who go to sleep each night under a roof — not looking down on them, reacting angrily when they enter a business or otherwise treating them like they’re something less than human.
“Those are things that are going to cause more damage than a couple of cold nights,” he said.
— Reporter: 541-633-2160; firstname.lastname@example.org