Editorial: Homelessness in Bend won’t get better without action

John Chunn and his dog Gus look at a shopping cart and pile of trash at an abandoned homeless campsite in Juniper Ridge in Bend in this August 2017 file photo. (Andy Tullis/Bulletin file photo)

Fears over wildfire threats are forcing the Bend City Council to consider removing homeless campers at Juniper Ridge.

During a work session Wednesday, the City Council supported drafting a policy that would allow the city to remove several camps of people who live throughout the largely undeveloped 1,500-acre industrial property in northeast Bend. The vision for the land — which was once seen as home to a university, a business park, trails, parks and homes — is being reevaluated by a community advisory committee.

The issue was prompted by an RV that caught fire on the property this month, said Bend Chief Operating Officer Jon Skidmore.

This fire was contained quickly due to wet and rainy conditions, but it raised the concern about potential wildfire risks on the property, said Bob Madden, a deputy chief with the Bend Fire Department.

“Had it been a more typical August day … we could have had a several-acre fire,” Madden told the council. “We would have had our hands full.”

Illegal camping has been an ongoing issue at Juniper Ridge. Emergency responders say they have had trouble responding to medical or fire calls because of unforgiving topography and access points. Several neighbors fear the activity on the land could lead to a fire that could spread to their homes.

About 50 to 60 camps of people live on the site, said Skidmore, who could not provide the council with an estimate of the number of homeless campers in the area.

Officials in recent years have attempted to curb the issue by putting up barriers and signs telling people not to camp but have had limited success. Now, city staff are seeking direction from the City Council on what to do.

“It’s not a safe environment. If you have a fire that doesn’t have the same mitigating circumstances as the RV fire, it could be real trouble for folks living out of there,” Skidmore said.

Overall, the council was supportive of creating a policy, which is required by the state to outline humane procedures governing how to move people off of public land. The policy would require the city give at least a 24-hour notice of eviction, provide access to social services and take other actions to make sure campers are removed humanely, Skidmore said.

“We have a duty to the citizens,” Councilor Justin Livingston said. “It’s their property, and we need to maintain that.”

As they move forward with the policy, councilors felt it was important to explore alternatives for those who would be displaced.

Most appeared supportive of looking into a formal, managed campsite or tiny home village for people who would be displaced by this kind of policy.

“Some prefer camping. Unless we can find some way to manage that and funnel it to an appropriate place, they will continue finding another place,” Councilor Gena Goodman-Campbell said.

The council also sees the policy as one way to start addressing homeless camps in public areas throughout the rest of the city.

“We need to do the best we can to take care of everyone who lives here,” Mayor Sally Russell said. “And this area in particular is threatening the safety of several residents.”

Once a policy is drafted and adopted, the process to remove campers could take about four months, Skidmore said.

— Reporter: 541-633-2160, bvisser@bendbulletin.com

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