Shannon Johnson no longer has to change where she lives every few days, but that doesn’t mean she’s better off.
The last time Johnson shared her story of homelessness in Bend, she described to The Bulletin a life made busier by finding a new place to park her maroon 1989 Dodge van every three business days. It didn’t make for stability, but the roof and solid walls of a vehicle gave her a sense of safety.
“It doesn’t matter where I parked, I felt really safe. I could lock the doors here and everything. It was dry and warm, it had a heater, a place to cook and the bed and all my stuff,” Johnson said. “It makes you feel a little more secure, private and safe, the van did.”
But when Johnson was taken by ambulance for emergency kidney surgery on Aug. 27, she couldn’t take her van. She had asked a friend to move it to a new spot while she was gone, but the friend didn’t. Soon her van had overstayed its limit and got towed.
For people like Johnson whose cars are their homes, city parking restrictions can be like a game of whack-a-mole, where “home” lasts for only a few days at a time, and the risk of overstaying one’s welcome is losing that home to a tow truck.
Police say parking enforcement relies on a complaint-based system, which leaves officers with ample room for discretion. But they would like more clarity about what they are required to enforce and that could come next month when city officials expect to vote on changes to its rules for sleeping in public.
That won’t help Johnson. Because she wasn’t listed on the title as the van’s owner, Johnson hasn’t been able to claim it from the towing company’s lot. Company staff told her that on Sept. 13, the van became their property. They plan to sell the van for scrap.
Without a car, without a shelter
“I’ve already been kind of depressed since I got hospital. So I’ve already kind of dealt with the situation, you know, I’m trying to get up above it, now,” Johnson said of being without her van. “I didn’t know how I was going to get the money (for towing fees), so I kind of expected it.”
Johnson, who’s been homeless in Bend for about two years, got the van from her sister eight months ago so she could have some protection from the elements as she recovered from a surgery. She recounts a process of constant visits by police community service officers wherever she parked her van, which had an awning that extended off the side and bikes sitting out back.
Sometimes, multiple officers would visit each day to remind her about the city’s parking limits and tag her car to keep track of how long it had been there as neighbors called to report seeing the van in their neighborhood. She never wanted to park in areas of the city or just outside it, where parking enforcement is more lax, like Hunnell Road or China Hat Road. She feared for her safety as a single woman. She also needed to be close enough to town to collect cans, which is how Johnson makes a living.
“Sometimes I’d be there an hour and the police would come give me the ticket on my window, like, ‘move in 72 hours,’” Johnson said.
For now, Johnson’s found a place to pitch a tent on Bend’s eastside. It’s harder to keep the wound from her kidney surgery clean while living in a tent, so she might have to wait longer than she planned before she can safely have an additional kidney surgery.
She also doesn’t always like living in such close proximity to others in the tents around her, but she doesn’t know where she’d go, or if she’d feel safe living alone. Before she had the van, she lived briefly on one of the Oregon Department of Transportation properties next to U.S. Highway 97 that got cleared last year.
“So I don’t want to live alone in the tent, for sure. So I need to go where other people are, and I just don’t know where that is because they move us. they move it.”
Rules give three days to move
The city’s current parking rules — whether or not someone is living inside the car being parked — require vehicles be moved every three business days. After that, the vehicle can be towed by contracted tow companies, which charge vehicle owners fees for towing and storage.
But in current practice, police officers are allowed a great deal of discretion about how the parking code is enforced. That task falls to the city’s nine community service officers, who Police Chief Mike Krantz says are often pulled in many directions. Without a dedicated set of regulations for camping and with limited resources, Krantz says parking enforcement isn’t always at the top of their list of priorities.
“Eighty percent of what we do is around discretion,” Krantz said. “Discretion doesn’t mean we ignore it.”
Bend Police received about 3,200 calls about abandoned vehicles in the year between September 2021 and August 2022.
The city doesn’t keep track of how many vehicles it tows, but Charlie Redline, a department community service officer, estimates that one or two cars a week are tagged to be towed. That’s a little over 3% of the reported calls in the one-year period, while most of the vehicles reported were moved by their owners after a warning or before police responded to the complaint.
Calls were reported throughout the city, but were most densely packed in the Old Bend neighborhood, and along 2nd, 3rd and 4th Streets on the city’s eastside.
New code would clarify parking enforcement
City councilors are in the process of considering new citywide regulations for pitching tents, building small structures or otherwise camping or sleeping in public. The current draft of the rules doesn’t change existing parking rules for how long vehicles can be parked or how city officials decide if they get towed, but it does add additional limitations on where cars can be used for sleeping and what can be around them.
The specific limitations are important to Krantz, who’s said repeatedly during the drafting process that his department needs more clarity on how to treat vehicles that are being lived in. The draft code outlines a list of requirements: Vehicles must be legally parked and operational and waste water, garbage, belongings and additional structures are not allowed outside vehicles. Sleeping in cars would be prohibited in some areas, like near pre-existing homeless shelters. Enforcement relies on existing laws ordinances and policies, including current towing rules, per the draft code.
In other words, the current draft of the rules means parked cars would be treated by police like parked cars, whether or not they were being used as a place to live, Krantz said.
“I think that as police officers our goal is not to go out and tow someone’s only shelter and where they live,” Krantz said. “We also have to be cognizant of the fact that our role is public safety and law enforcement and ordinance enforcement.”
While the draft code’s clarity is helpful, Krantz said he would favor a different group of people all together, like a navigation team instead of police community service officers, being the city’s first response to people living in public or experiencing a mental health crisis.
Bend City Councilors will discuss the draft code Wednesday at a work session before their regular meeting. They could potentially take into account public input and modify certain time and place restraints currently in the code. Councilors will take a final vote on the code in November.