As Shawna Gerdes cleaned up her campsite off Revere Avenue and the northbound on-ramp to the Bend Parkway early last week, she couldn’t help but feel overwhelmed by a sense of loss.
Gerdes of course would be losing her physical home, which nestled into the hillside and was made of stakes and tarps, when crews hired by the Oregon Department of Transportation came through to sweep the area.
The Bend resident would also be losing her community, which she had developed over the last six months of being homeless. But even more pressing than that, she feared what being pushed out to the edges of town or into the woods would mean for her future.
“How are we supposed to get jobs, to get mental health help?” Gerdes said Oct. 25.
Gerdes was one of dozens of homeless campers who were removed from ODOT managed property this month.
Over the course of seven days, the transportation agency removed roughly 30 campsites from properties off Revere Avenue and Colorado Avenue near the Bend Parkway, according to ODOT spokesperson Peter Murphy. ODOT cited safety concerns around road debris from snow plowing threatening the safety of homeless campers as the main reason for clearing the areas.
Operationally, the removals went smoothly, Murphy said. No citations were issued related to the removals, according to Bend Police Lt. Juli McConkey. One homeless camper was arrested on an outstanding felony warrant unrelated to the sweep, she said.
But the most recent sweeps from ODOT have divided homeless advocates. Records obtained by The Bulletin show members of the Homeless Leadership Coalition, which is made up of a variety of people from the private and public sectors, attempted to put out a statement asking the agency to put a moratorium on moving people off its property until there were shelter options.
The draft letter also objected to the agency’s characterization that service providers work with ODOT to carry out removals.
But ultimately the letter split the coalition, leading to no statement being published and one resignation from the coalition’s board of directors.
As the issue of homelessness continues to dominate political discussions in Central Oregon, the region’s most visible coalition of people working to help the homeless community is now facing pressure from the community and its own members to examine its role.
“I think there are community members that want us to be one way, and my thought is, what are our mandates?” said Colleen Thomas, the coalition’s chairwoman.
The coalition is mandated by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and is charged with actions like the annual Point-in-Time count and managing the coordinated entry system, which is intended to help unhoused people find housing.
But some board members have been pushing for the coalition to take on more of a public advocacy role when it comes to homelessness in Central Oregon.
James Cook, who resigned shortly after the letter was voted down, was one of those board members.
“Part of leadership is advocating for what you believe, and advocating for the people you are trying to work with. When that doesn’t happen it creates a vacuum, and other voices are going to come in to fill that vacuum, and some of those voices are going to be more radical than the HLC will be,” Cook said. “By not speaking up, the HLC misses a chance to have a greater impact, at least in some areas, than they currently do.”
Eric Garrity, a local homeless advocate and member of the Homeless Leadership Coalition, said to him the issue is about accountability. Pushing people off property to the edges of town with no alternative shelter, far from basic resources like propane, food and access to the internet, meets the basic definition of inhumane, Garrity said.
“No one wants to really own what’s happening,” Garrity said.
But others, like John Lodise of Shepherd’s House Ministries, disagreed with the “us versus them” kind of tone laid out in the letter, finding it “unproductive,” according to records obtained by The Bulletin.
“Honestly, I see no inhumane villain in this scenario, other than the long-term social torpor that has now dislocated people to an inhumane extent,” Lodise wrote.
With the coalition being all volunteer run, and not being a nonprofit organization, Thomas said to a certain extent the coalition has limited capacity in what it can do. The coalition has issued statements in the past, like with the city’s decision to clear campers from Juniper Ridge, but the coalition had more time to construct a response, she said.
There have been ongoing conversations about whether the coalition should become a nonprofit corporation, she said.
But what is clear now is that several people have been displaced with nowhere to go, Thomas said. She has heard people have just moved to other pockets of land in town, moved farther out to China Hat Road, or are occupying park land.
The focus needs to be on more long-term solutions as people are, once again, left without safe or legal places to go, she said.
“It’s a disruption to folks’ lives,” Thomas said.