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.
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.
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.”