There’s a new type of visitor to Bend. Drawn by free overnight parking and amenities like the world-class Bend Whitewater Park, they might technically be homeless. But with wool-insulated $50,000-Mercedes Sprinter vans, they don’t seem to neighbors to be hard up.
Residents and business owners near McKay Park are concerned these lifestyle vehicle campers have turned the area into an unofficial campground. And with summer around the corner, and a large housing development planned nearby, local dentist Philippe Freeman and others hope a policy fix is soon in place.
“It’s crazy. Every summer’s been the worst summer yet,” Freeman said. “This isn’t a homeless issue, either. We basically have no policy about overnight parking.”
Freeman’s Deschutes Dental Center has arguably the best seat in town to watch what’s been happening. At Shevlin Hixon and Bradbury drives and across the road from the park, there’s a sign on Freeman’s office’s front door that reads, “No public restroom.”
“I’m envious they have the courage to do that while they’re young and capable,” Freeman said of lifestyle campers.
But he’s worried about after-hours use of the park, and campers who break the law. He regularly hears from patients who had to park blocks away because they couldn’t find a spot near his office.
At River Park Family Dentistry across Bradbury Drive from Freeman’s office, the patient rooms face the rolling landscape of the park and occasionally provide patients views of much more.
“I’ve heard they’ve seen some stuff,” said Ryan Richard, a wave shaper for Bend Park & Recreation District, of the custom of surfers “deck changing” — changing in and out of swimwear in the open — near their vehicles.
Freeman and others say the problem grew considerably after the park district added a permanent bathroom facility to McKay Park in 2016. The automatic locks on the bathroom doors coincide with park hours, which in the summer are 6 a.m. to 10 p.m.
In Bend, vehicles may remain parked in a space for five days, at which point a code or law enforcement officer may place a sticker on the vehicle informing the owner that he or she has seven days to move it.
This rule was enacted, in part, to allow Bend residents the freedom to travel out of the area without the fear their cars will be towed from outside their homes, according to Bend Police Chief Jim Porter.
Porter said he’s familiar with complaints about van campers at McKay Park, but his officers are not in the business of determining who’s a desirable homeless person and who’s not.
“That’s just not for us to say,” Porter said.
Freeman and other business owners and neighbors went to the May 14 Bend City Council meeting to raise their concerns.
Linda May came with a stack of information she gathered online, including from websites with pages dedicated to “How to camp for free in Bend.”
“Last time we rolled thru buddy told me cops do nothing,” reads one review from Freecamps.net. “After they put that neon sticker on, u still have another week. it’s not ideal no electric but sometimes can poach off offices nearby. can’t beat the surf, beach, grass, walk down town or old mill so don’t lose your spot. free beer tour best idea yet. hittin that this time. cruising back thru in a couple of weeks.”
City Manager Eric King was ready for the group at the May 14 meeting and floated a proposal — a four-hour parking limit in the general area of the whitewater park.
At this, the neighbors and business owners nodded in agreement. “If that’s what you want to do, then I guess we’re good,” one said in lieu of his prepared statement.
As of Friday, the city was considering costs for signs and enforcement of a four-hour maximum parking restriction near the park, according to Jon Skidmore, the city’s chief operating officer.
“At this time, we’re working on the specifics with (the park district) in terms of how to fund the effort,” he said.
Park district spokeswoman Julie Brown said the district is supportive of the city’s efforts.
“We share a common goal of having compliance with parking rules and access to parks and neighboring businesses,” Brown said. “We want to facilitate access to the park for residents, and four-hour parking limits allow for more turnover of vehicles and for more individuals and groups to enjoy activities in parks.”
The Deschutes River near the Colorado Bridge features a complex of amenities — the Les Schwab Amphitheater Marsh, which provides protected habitat for frogs, the safe passage fish ladder and McKay Park on the south side, and Miller’s Landing across the river. The parks are free and highly popular — if it’s summer and it’s sunny, McKay Park can look like a music festival without the bands.
But the jewel in the middle of the Deschutes is the Bend Whitewater Park and its “Green Wave,” so named for the face’s verdant hue.
With 26 inflatable bladders and gates surrounding the park, it’s highly adjustable, which is important in ensuring there’s always good surf, regardless of the water level.
“As far as we know, it’s the biggest man-made surf wave in the world,” said Richard, one of the district’s two professional wave shapers.
The wave is also free and popular. If there’s daylight in Bend, someone is usually surfing.
“It’s a pretty special place. The culture here is very healthy,” said James Adams, the district’s other wave shaper. “I came from an ocean surfing culture and it can be pretty brutal, pretty nasty. But it’s really, really awesome how inclusive this is — very positive.”
Regardless of what you do for your day job, Adams said, the wave park is “such a neutralizing space.”
Lined up to surf the Green Wave are architects on their lunch break, travelers from around the world and pro athletes. Sometimes, there are pro surfers, like Gerry Lopez and Jack Johnson.
“THE Jack Johnson,” Adams said, referring to the singer-songwriter who is a world-class surfer. “Oh yeah, he’s the real deal.”
As for the overnight guests near the park, they’re tough to categorize. Most are men, though there are couples. Some are surfers. Some have tried surfing but wouldn’t call themselves surfers. Some are on vacation. Some live and work in Bend.
There’s Mark Humphrey and his girlfriend, Ciara Regby, who pulled into town Thursday night and on Friday morning were packing up to hit the road. Before heading toward his ultimate destination of the Gorge Amphitheater in Washington state, Humphrey planned to hit the Green Wave. This time, he’ll be wearing his new impact vest.
“I almost drowned last time,” he said. “I’m used to ocean surfing. This humbled me out real quick.”
There’s Michael Aldeel, whose sticker-covered Vanagon is orderly inside. The onetime magazine photographer from Seattle earns enough as prep chef at a local restaurant to afford to travel about half the time. But it’s not enough to be able to put down “first, last and a deposit,” so he embraced a minimalist existence.
He’s been parking at McKay Park, on and off, for “a while,” he said.
“This would affect my lifestyle directly,” he said. “There have to be better solutions than restricting parking.”
There’s Rich Strahan, whose cluttered van was parked under the Colorado Avenue Bridge. He’s lived in Bend since the early 1990s but rarely in a permanent structure.
A pair of travelers from California were attempting to help Strahan charge his battery, which was drained.
“People say there’s a homeless problem in Bend,” he said. “Bend, you don’t have a homeless problem.”
Moments later, Strahan’s pit bull, Trouble, charged at a passing pedestrian.
“Yeah, he’s a nipper,” Strahan said.
Dave Chun, co-owner of paddle maker Kialoa Paddles, said he has a friend in Bend who’s a young engineer with a good job who’s choosing to live in a kitted-out Sprinter.
Chun spends a lot of time at McKay Park and said he sympathizes with nearby business owners who might feel territorial about the space in front of their property.
“I think they have some legitimate gripes,” he said. “Because it does affect business, you know. If we try to shop at Safeway, but every time we go there, the parking lot is full, we don’t go to Safeway anymore.”
As for dental patients seeing an occasional butt or two, Chun said, “At least the butts here are generally pretty nice.”
— Reporter: 541-383-0325, firstname.lastname@example.org