A new organization in Bend wants to refocus the conversation about homelessness to include enforcing laws in the interest of public safety, but the group’s lack of transparency has raised concerns about its intentions.
It’s called the Bend Humanity Coalition, and its focus is mainly asking the City Council to shift the policy discussion to enforce laws, like littering or open container laws, for people who live on public property in Bend, according to Jeff Eager, who is a political consultant for the coalition.
The group argues not enforcing those kinds of laws makes the city unsafe for housed and unhoused people.
“Allowing people to camp on public property is not accepting and it’s not humane. It’s dangerous, and the City Council’s current hands-off approach serves no one well,” the coalition’s website states.
But who makes up the coalition, or where the money comes from to support it, is hidden from the public. That’s because its members have chosen to stay anonymous, Eager said, other than being identified broadly as “small business owners, parents and retirees.”
Eager, a former Bend city councilor and mayor, said the wish to remain anonymous comes from not wanting to face public backlash by being associated with the coalition.
The only named person is Tim Baggs, who appears to be the owner of the boating retailer Lifestyle Wake and is listed as the president of the coalition, according to a filing with the Oregon Secretary of State’s office. Baggs did not respond to a request for comment.
The lack of transparency around the coalition, which was officially announced Friday, has raised red flags for some homeless advocates and city councilors, who question the intentions and purpose of the coalition.
James Cook, a member of the Homeless Leadership Coalition, said he found it concerning that the group appears to have not had any interaction with any of the homeless service providers in Central Oregon, and does not propose any actions that would “address the root cause of our homeless problem.”
The lack of transparency, along with the fact the organization is a 501(c)(4), also leads Cook, as well as some city councilors, to believe the purpose of the coalition is less about enacting change and more about injecting the issue of homelessness into the next city council election happening in 2022.
“That’s generally a sign we’re talking about a political organization that’s hiding behind a well sounding name,” Cook said Monday. “I’d love to be wrong about this.”
A 501(c)(4) is a nonprofit that must be designed to promote a social welfare issue, and may engage in some political activity as long as it’s not the primary function, according to the IRS.
Councilor Melanie Kebler said she has no issue with a coalition forming to help organize public opinion, and cited Central Oregon LandWatch as an organization that performs a similar function for environmental and land use related topics.
But the difference, Kebler said, is that someone can go to Central Oregon LandWatch’s website and see who they are.
“I think it’s very important to know who is putting these groups together and to know what their motivation and agenda is,” Kebler said Monday. “Who is deciding this messaging?”
Councilor Megan Perkins called the coalition “performative” because it offered no real solutions to homelessness.
“To just wish away the problem isn’t going to get us anywhere,” Perkins said. “And to my view, (it) is pretty insulting to the service providers, who are out there day after day trying to get people in safe environments.”
Eager said the organization came about when a group of Bend residents who had been discussing homeless issues in Bend approached him to start this effort.
“I understand that (the anonymity) will be a criticism,” Eager said. “The fact of the matter is this is a lawful means of issue advocacy, and there are a lot of people in this community who have jobs or otherwise don’t feel comfortable putting themselves in the public spotlight.”
Eager rebuffed claims that the organization is only there to set up an election issue, and said that if that were the intent, a political action committee would have been set up to support candidates.
“We’re trying to bring a point of view that quite frankly has not, in an organized, fashion been presented,” Eager said. “It would be nice if people just met the arguments head on and then deal with those arguments on their face value rather than wondering what we’re really up to...What we’re really up to is trying to affect the policy discussion around this issue.”