A line of cars wound all the way down Hunnell Road, the site of a large homeless camp, on the morning of June 29, the day the mercury reached 104 and two days after two men died there during last month’s heat wave. People brought donations of food, ice, water, sunscreen, hats and more, and volunteers from multiple mutual aid groups and homeless outreach organizations were there to accept and distribute them.

One Hunnell Road resident described the “mountain” of donations as life-saving. Many dropping off donations were responding to calls for resources at Hunnell Road on social media, where Central Oregon mutual aid groups have attracted a large following, according to Jon Riggs, who started the mutual aid group Kitchen Street Collective.

“People came out in droves,” he said.

What happened during the heat wave at Hunnell Road can be traced back to March of 2020.

Central Oregon saw a burgeoning mutual aid movement in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Informal groups linked people who needed help with those who were able to provide it through social media message boards, where people could both ask for help and offer assistance in their communities.

But as the pandemic wanes, many mutual aid groups are soldiering on, shifting their focus to larger, systemic issues such as chronic homelessness, poverty and climate change, indicating that a mutual aid mindset could be a lasting impact of the pandemic on Central Oregon communities.

Riggs started the Street Kitchen Collective after David Savory — a homeless, wheelchair-bound Bend resident — froze to death in November. The initial plan for the group was to cook and distribute meals to the homeless, he said.

“We just came out with some food, and then we saw other needs, and then we really started seeing the systemic barriers that houseless people are up against,” Riggs said.

Now, the group collaborates with other mutual aid groups to distribute necessary resources to camps across Central Oregon.

“We can’t walk away from what we’ve started,” Riggs said. “People need people.”

According to Mutual Aid Hub, an organization that tracks such groups, at least 800 of them formed during the pandemic nationwide, including some 25 in Oregon, and more are likely to exist as many are small and informal.

Pandemic Partners

The organization lists one Central Oregon group: Pandemic Partners Bend. But more exist, including the Street Kitchen Collective and Redmond Collective Action, groups made up of Central Oregon residents who distribute food and other resources to the region’s homeless and other at-need groups.

The Rev. Morgan Schmidt created the Facebook page Pandemic Partners at the beginning of the pandemic with the intention of connecting people to meet community needs.

For example: An immunocompromised person could ask someone to do grocery runs. Or someone with extra toilet paper could offer to deliver it to those without.

“Pandemic Partners at our roots is: If you can help, help,” Schmidt said.

The group proliferated, capping out at nearly 12,000 members.

As the pandemic stretched on, need in Central Oregon swelled. Between 2020 and 2021, the region’s homeless population increased by 13%, according to a point-in-time count, and extreme weather events like the Labor Day wildfires and a frigid winter put those living on the streets at risk.

Members of mutual aid networks that formed in 2020 stepped in to help.

“The pandemic shed light on the needs of our most vulnerable neighbors,” Schmidt said. “The pandemic might be in its later phase, but the pandemics of poverty, houselessness and climate change still face our society.”

Some people criticized local governments and the federal government for a lack of action, such as Luke Richter, leader of the social justice and mutual aid group Central Oregon Peacekeepers.

“Mutual aid definitely is a response to systemic failure,” he said.

Richter formed Central Oregon Peacekeepers, a social justice group, during the Black Lives Matter protests that swept the nation in June 2020.

In the past, the group participated in occasionally volatile protests.

But the group also organizes through social media to get resources to Central Oregon’s homeless and other at-need groups. Richter describes the group’s work as mutual aid.

“I don’t think there’s any other way to describe it,” Richter said. “Whatever we have, we give.

Richter said volunteers will provide mutual aid at homeless camps across Central Oregon for the foreseeable future.

“We’re going to be here making sure that people are safe,” he said. “We try to be wherever we can, but the most immediate need is right here right now,” he said, referring to the Hunnell Road camp.

On Friday, an example of mutual aid played out once again at Hunnell Road.

As temperatures inched towards triple digits, members of multiple mutual aid groups made calls on social media for volunteers to sign-up to provide assistance at the camp using an online sign-up sheet. According to Richter, the system worked well: Volunteers were filling shifts and a steady stream of donations came in.

“All of us, all the mutual aid groups, we all talk with each other everyday to make sure that we have enough resources to help everybody,” Richter said.

‘Many positives’

According to REACH executive director Stacey Witte, who’s worked with Central Oregon’s homeless for five years, mutual aid groups that formed in 2020 led to increased homeless outreach throughout the region.

“There have been so many positives that have come out with the increased involvement,” she said. “First of all, there’s more hands on deck helping, and it’s brought about more education and it has shed light on what’s going on in our region.”

Witte said the increased involvement hasn’t come without challenges, however.

“Some new groups don’t have as much training as social service providers,” she said. “These groups have good hearts — they want to give and give and give. But we want to make sure we’re providing the tools to help our houseless neighbors become self-sufficient.”

Additionally, Witte said that some people just getting involved in homeless outreach believe that there was little to no outreach prior to 2020.

“I have always been so impressed with the social services agencies in our region, and that’s frustrating when new people come in and say nothing is being done,” she said. “The houseless community to me is amazing. It has so many skills and talents. But it also has a lot of complexities. It takes time to understand and to address the issues in a respectful and dignified way.”

For example, Witte said that after the two men died at Hunnell Road during the heat wave, REACH received many calls from people asking why no one helped connect those men to resources.

“I can tell you, personally, that both of those men were very well connected to social services and medical services,” Witte said. “People forget that we can offer support, but we can’t force people to accept it. If they don’t want them, we’ll keep trying. But it’s very complex.”

Witte said that REACH and other organizations have collaborated with Pandemic Partners, and she hopes to see more collaborations and open communication between mutual aid groups and social service providers in the future.

Witte said she thinks some mutual aid groups will continue to grow and others might fade over time, but overall, she’s grateful for the increased outreach mutual aid has provided for Central Oregon’s homeless.

According to Schmidt, 2020 saw a shift toward a mutual aid mindset, a trend she and other Central Oregonian’s involved in mutual aid hope will continue.

“Something in us has changed, as a community and as individuals,” she said. “We’re helping and caring for each other more.

“That’s the root of mutual aid to me: collaboration,” she said. “I hope that these efforts continue. We’ve had our eyes opened to the fact that everyone deserves shelter, water, food, dignity, kindness and love.”

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(9) comments

NotaRobot

They are just the bears in Yosemite. Feed them and they become dependent on you. Giving handouts with no strings attached is not helpful. All the do-goodies feel better about themselves but in the long run it helps very very few homeless people.

vikrampaul93

I read this article! I hope you will continue to have such articles to share with everyone! thank you!

kindergentlerbend

It’s truly heartening to see such generosity and compassion coming from our community. In stepping up like this, we are--also--dispelling stereotypes about unhoused individuals and notions that their predicaments stem exclusively from personal failure.

Unfortunately, as can be seen from comments here and from reports of bullying and violence directed against people on Hunnell Road and elsewhere, we still have a ways to go to protect the personal safety of our unhoused neighbors.

This attitude of animosity against unhoused people extends, I fear, into the ranks of the Bend Police Dept. I have heard from individuals on Emerson St. that Bend police officers behave in such a way as to deliberately agitate and stir up people.

Recently on Emerson St., a tow truck operator gunned and aimed his vehicle dangerously close to a group of campers. BPD officers on the scene refused to take statements from numerous witnesses to this crime.

Then, on the day of the Emerson St. eviction, 6 to 8 police officers (watch the tape on KTVZ) rushed a lone shirtless man who was attempting to use one of the Porta-Potties--knocking him to the ground and pummeling him.

We are not going to achieve protection for our unhoused neighbors unless City government ceases and desists from using selectively written policies to “remove” people and stops using its police officers to harass people. Such policy writes a permission slip for others to do harm.

In his Blake v. Grants Pass ruling from last summer, U.S. District Court Judge Mark Clarke stated, “We must try harder to protect our most vulnerable citizens. Let us not forget that homeless individuals are citizens just as much as those fortunate enough to have a secure living space.”

The City of Bend and other local jurisdictions have many examples to follow to help unhoused people, rather than go on endlessly persecuting them. Judge Clarke references a facility in Medford:

“Residents of Hope Village are required to attend case management meetings, counseling sessions, and work on permanent ways to stay off of the streets. Rogue Retreat says the average stay at Hope Village is around four months, and the program has a 62 percent success rate . . . this means 6 out of 10 people in the program successfully move away from homelessness”

Hope Village resident Buckshot Cunningham: “Look at this place,” he says, motioning to the neat row of cottages. “It's clean; it's beautiful. And it stays that way seven days a week, all year round. It's pretty simple."

Volnay

I was going to Bi-Mart that day and the homeless encampment had grown there very large and quickly, sometimes even blocking the road. That day what I saw was the police being screamed at profanity and the protesters trying their best to start an incident as all had their cell phones out hopefully to start an altercation. No one seemed to want to help just start something.

With that said, Hope Village sounds much better for all and places like that shrine encouraged. Plus I’d like to see subsidized housing built for people who work and contribute to the community so they can live and work in Bend. So many places need employees but many don’t have the means to commute to work.

kindergentlerbend

At least we can agree that we should try alternative solutions for everyone caught up in the housing crisis. I very reluctantly bring up shortcomings at City Hall--it continues to baffle me that that group of open-minded individuals clings to the futility of the past.

Smedley Doright

Thanks for the water bottles. I dumped 80 of them into the dirt, got my $8.00 back at the bottle return and rode my bike to the liquor store for my $7.99 fifth of bottom shelf vodka. Easy as can be.

kdenfeld

You are not a houseless person. You are a person that choses to uphold stereotypes.

Smedley Doright

Not today but I was six years ago. Then it took 160 water bottles to buy a fifth. Doubling the deposit cut the workload in half.

Lighthouse Mission PDX Graduate 2016

Skittish

I was never homeless, but did live under the threat of becoming homeless. Food and clothing were relatively limited for many years. I vowed not to live out the rest of my life like this and made what ever sacrifices necessary to become successful. As you appear to be well aware, there are those that will benefit from help, but there are many others who will parasitize do gooders and bleed their bleeding hearts dry. Homelessness is complicated and helping them is also complicated. Good intentions are simply not enough, and run the risk of enabling dysfunctional behavior. Congratulations on turning our life around, establish good habits, plan for the future and make your self a better person on a daily basis.

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