Homeless camp removal efforts have continued on land owned by the Oregon Department of Transportation in Bend, despite public health guidance that warns against it and pushback from some residents.
Several residents in the past week have written emails or spoken to the Bend City Council with the plea to end homeless camp removal efforts along the Bend Parkway.
“That motion disconnects them from the services that could help them get them out of their circumstances,” Mike Satcher, a Sisters resident who works in Bend, told the council in a virtual meeting Wednesday. “Until we can provide affordable housing...we have to have safe, healthy managed camps where people can experience some level of stability.”
At the beginning of the pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued public health guidance advising public agencies to not move homeless camps in an effort to limit the spread of COVID-19. The CDC also recommends hygienic facilities, like hand-washing stations, be provided at camps to help prevent the spread.
The city has not posted eviction notices at camps on city owned property recently, and has put out hand-washing stations at many of the known homeless camps within the city, said Jon Skidmore, the city’s chief operating officer on Wednesday.
The removal efforts are happening on property owned by the department of transportation, also known as ODOT. In the past couple of months, the department has posted seven to eight 24-hour eviction notices at camps that sit in the right of way of U.S. Highway 97, said Joel McCarroll, the District 10 Manager at ODOT.
There are about 25 camps along the section of Highway 97 known as the Bend Parkway, he said.
McCarroll said these camps are being moved for public health and safety reasons, including illegal fires, reports of gunshots, people trespassing on private property and human waste-related sanitation issues.
At one location near Murphy Road and west of the highway, a camper in August lost control of a fire, which threatened a neighborhood that sits next to the campsite, McCarroll said.
“At that point we decided that there was a safety risk to allow people to stay,” he said.
But roughly six months later, campers have returned, and ODOT plans to post another eviction notice for the area, McCarroll said.
McCarroll said ODOT has to react to the complaints it receives from neighboring properties and businesses, even though there is general recognition that people eventually return.
“If we don’t deal with them, we’re negligent,” McCarroll said.
McCarroll said ODOT needs to do a better job of making sure camps can’t reestablish again once they’ve been moved.
But even when homeless campers do return, the situation can improve after camps are removed, he said. For example, although ODOT evicted campers at the Highway 97 interchange at Revere Avenue in June, campers returned, McCarroll said, but the number of complaints have gone down considerably compared to last year.
“I don’t know if people have given up (on) complaining to us...or if the people camping there are a different group of people that are not having the negative interactions with the neighbors,” he said.
McCarroll said ODOT partners with homeless nonprofit groups and Bend Police to hand out trash bags to campers to help keep properties clean. One big difference seen at the Revere Avenue camp now versus last year is that the campers are keeping the site more clean, he said.
“If they are able to minimize the damage to the site, it’s easier to let them stay,” he said.
The issue of cleanliness is exactly why some in the community are asking the city to do more in the way of providing bathrooms and dumpsters at homeless camp sites. Several residents in emails and during public comment asked the council to consider putting portable toilets at places where homeless people congregate.
But both police and homeless service providers warned against having portable toilets at campsites, Skidmore, the chief operating officer of the city, said Wednesday. There are safety concerns associated with having portable toilets that have the ability to lock on a property without having any oversight or management, he said.
Other solutions, like building permanent bathroom facilities at some well-established camp areas or having agreements with neighboring properties, could be considered, Skidmore said.
Regardless of what the council decides to do moving forward, a new grassroots group called the Street Kitchen Collective plans to keep the issue at the forefront.
The group was formed in the fall and is made up of young Bend residents who make food and distribute it among homeless camps across Central Oregon. The volunteers were moved by the death of David Savory, a homeless man who died in the elements last year, said Eric Garrity, a group member.
“There’s a lot of preconceptions people have about folks who are unhoused,” Garrity said Thursday. “As we’ve been doing this work, there’s a lot of times people have tried to talk about unhoused people as if they are unworthy of helping or undeserving of assistance, and the reality is those preconceptions don’t line up with reality.”
On top of that, evictions don’t work Garrity said. He called them inhumane and unnecessarily expensive.
The group rallied members of the community over social media to speak out against the evictions at the council meeting and over email in an effort to push back against an anti-homeless narrative. Garrity mentioned, for example, how a group of people in the Boyd Acres Neighborhood in northeast Bend protested a transitional camp on Juniper Ridge — a project that was nixed in the end.
“When we saw that effort fail, we saw the benefit of trying to change public opinion on that matter,” Garrity said.
Councilor Melanie Kebler said the urgency of the community’s message was heard, and that she intends to ask city staff about what can be done to solve trash and hygiene issues without moving people.
“We need to move (on this issue) and the community wants us to move,” Kebler said.