After living on the outskirts of Bend for roughly seven years, Danielle McGovern decided recently to make camp in town on Emerson Avenue so she could be closer to services.
But on Wednesday, the 51-year-old will be one of dozens who will be removed by the city of Bend, which is citing safety and public health concerns as reasons for closing the street and clearing the camp.
Per state law, the city has a plan to store what is deemed as personal property in a secure storage location for 30 days for people to retrieve.
McGovern considers herself a minimalist, and hopes to be able to move as much as she can back to a forested area off China Hat Road in Bend. She has learned to live with fewer attachments because the constant threat of losing it all is always in the background of her day-to-day life.
Previous moves have shown her that despite her efforts to live with few possessions, she usually loses about half of her belongings each time because of the challenges around moving it.
“I won’t take things because I’m scared to lose them,” she said outside her tent last week. “I can’t have anything sentimental.”
While the public agencies like the city are required by law to collect personal property and store it after homeless camp cleanups, previous cleanups and evictions in Central Oregon show that the story of property loss for homeless residents is more complicated. Due to a variety of barriers, extremely few homeless residents pick up personal belongings after they’ve been collected and stored, according to information from the Oregon Department of Transportation and Deschutes County.
Out of several cleanups administered on property owned by ODOT since the beginning of the year, only five homeless campers have come back to retrieve their belongings, according to Peter Murphy, a spokesman for ODOT. The rest that isn’t picked up is sent to the landfill.
In a homeless camp removal effort near Redmond in 2018, none of the campers chose to use a personal storage option provided by the county, according to Whitney Hale, the county’s public information officer.
Several barriers can exist when it comes to someone homeless trying to recover items taken away in a cleanup or eviction, according to homeless service providers, which contributes to a cycle of people needing to replace their belongings.
Cleanups also come with a cost. The cleanup at Emerson Avenue is expected to cost between $10,000 to $15,000, according to the city. As of early June, ODOT has spent $47,700 on homeless camp cleanup efforts in Central Oregon, Murphy said in an email.
That raises questions about whether the storage practice, which is intended to be more humane for homeless residents, is effective, and whether there are better alternatives.
“I don’t know if it’s really worth offering,” said Stacey Witte, the executive director of REACH, a nonprofit organization that serves homeless people. “It’d almost be less expensive to help someone pay one month of storage somewhere.”
For the effort at Emerson Avenue, city workers will close the street Wednesday and begin collecting items that have been tagged by residents as personal property, and throwing away the rest, said Grant Burke, the city’s facilities director. Last week, the city posted notices to let people know when and where people can retrieve their belongings, which will be stored in containers in the Troy Field parking lot in downtown Bend.
But there are many reasons why homeless people choose not to store their belongings, or retrieve them, Witte said. It boils down to trust.
“Everything in their entire life is in those garbage bags or in that tent, so there’s a trust issue,” Witte said. They are worried they won’t get their things back.”
Coordination is also an issue, said Colleen Thomas, Deschutes County’s homeless services coordinator.
People often don’t have a way to transport their stuff, or have a sense of where to put it because they don’t know where they are going next, Thomas said.
Money can also be a potential barrier. For items cleared off ODOT property, campers are charged $2 to pick up their items, which is an administration fee, said Tim McGinnis, a transportation maintenance manager with ODOT.
The fee is used to filter out those who want to retrieve their items and those who want to come to the ODOT office to complain, he said.
All of this can contribute to a pattern of more people seeking donations for essentials after a cleanup, Thomas said.
“They are in that survival mode, so they panic and leave. Then there is a request for a new tent and sleeping bag,” Thomas said.
Dave Notari, the director of development at Shepherd’s House Ministries, said the nonprofit doesn’t have any scientific data to show whether the need for donations goes up after a cleanup, but said based on experience it does appear that way, and that the organization does see people come in for essentials like sleeping bags and jackets.
“If we were able to provide people some stability,” Thomas said, “I still think there would be a need for resources, but it might not be as much.”
Other solutions — like investing in community lockers so people experiencing homelessness can secure their belongings during the day without fear of them getting stolen or damaged — could help. A system of volunteers who transport or otherwise help homeless individuals retrieve their stuff could also help, but would likely require more trusted people who work in providing services to homeless people to execute, Thomas said.
“It’s going to take dedicated compassionate people to do that work, and part of that is for agencies to provide a living wage,” Thomas said, noting that prospective workers in this industry face similar housing affordability challenges as the clients they serve.
Witte said her organization has focused efforts on buying utility carts and larger backpacks for people to help them carry their belongings more effectively.
But ultimately, these are short-term solutions, Witte and Thomas said. People need a stable place where they can legally stay and call home.
“We need a safe camping area and … to work with people to take responsibility to keep their areas clean,” Witte said.