It took McKinley Morrill about a month to create what he called his “oversized club house.”
Nestled into the hillside leading up to U.S. Highway 97 by Revere Avenue, Morrill built a small home out of salvaged materials from a nearby construction company — a structure that looks remarkably permanent compared to the tents and tarps of nearby homeless campers like himself.
He painted the walls a rainbow of colors. He put a cross above the doorway, a reference to his Christian faith. Carefully placed rocks created a stairway.
He prided himself on being able to build it all with just a hammer.
But on Tuesday morning, the 41-year-old Bend man had to start taking it apart. A couple of weeks ago he received a notice from the Oregon Department of Transportation, which owns the land. The house had to go.
“It’s a little bit frustrating because I just completed it and I was looking forward to just relaxing now,” Morrill said Tuesday morning while packing up with a yellow garbage bag. “But it’s not the end of the world.”
Morrill’s situation is one ODOT is starting to see more frequently at homeless camps on its property, said Peter Murphy, an agency spokesperson. While the extent of the phenomenon is not clear yet, the agency is starting to see more structures on its properties that look more permanent.
Just Tuesday morning two structures, both made of wood with features like doors, were dismantled during clean up efforts at homeless camps near the highway — one structure off Olney Avenue and Morrill’s.
After a conversation with the city of Bend’s code enforcement and fire departments, it was decided that structures like Morrill’s pose more of a fire risk near the highway because they are made of wood products, Murphy said.
“Our recommendation was to focus on sites that present a fire hazard, which can be structures and/or vegetation,” said James Goff, the city’s code enforcement manager, in an email. “They had a few that were in highly vegetated areas.”
And while the agency is not removing people who are camping on its properties at this time, more formal structures need to be treated differently.
“We aren’t in the business of allowing permanent structures on our right of way, Murphy said.
While permanent -looking structures may seem new to those driving through town, it is not an uncommon practice among people who live in more remote areas, like Bureau of Land Management land, said Colleen Thomas, the homeless services coordinator for Deschutes County.
What could be different is that, because of COVID-19 health guidance from the CDC, homeless people are being moved off land less frequently than they would be in normal times.
“People aren’t getting asked to move as quickly as they have in the past, so they want to provide some sense of security and stability,” Thomas said. “I think that might be where some of that increase could be coming from.”
Thomas said she recognized the fire risk that comes with having a structure made of wood near a highway, but also questioned why the conversation around fire safety is often hyper focused on homeless people.
“What is the larger community doing to address community fire risk? Not just homeless people?” Thomas said.
ODOT is treating these structures as personal property, which means the agency is disassembling them and storing the pieces at a secure site for 30 days, per state law.
But more needs to be done, said Jon Riggs, who volunteers with a group called the Street Kitchen Collective to support homeless residents.
“Unfortunately the city council and police in my opinion are not working enough with the professionals who understand this issue to give the proper resources and time to effectively place the people we serve,” Riggs said in a text message.
Morrill’s structure was torn down completely, however, because he gave the agency permission to do so, Murphy said.
For Morrill, building his own home was a way to save money. After a stint in the Deschutes County jail, Morrill fell behind financially because he wasn’t able to work.
In the hopes of saving up money for a car, Morrill decided it would be cheaper to build something from what he could find rather than try to buy a tent or some other form of shelter. In the past, Morrill said he has worked in construction.
“I thought I’d put together something quick that was free,” he said.
Morrill will still be allowed to live on the ODOT property, with a tent that the agency has provided. But Morrill said he doesn’t plan to stay in this position for long.
According to Morrill, the company that let him use the leftover materials for his house recently offered him a job in construction.