Fall has always been one of Central Oregon’s most beautiful times of year in my book, and this fall is no exception. In fact, it makes it particularly hard to think about what the next few months could bring to the region’s poorest men and women.

A year ago, late fall and winter were miserable, even if you worked in a heated office and had a toasty house to go home to each night. A surprising number of our neighbors lacked both those things.

In fact, I can remember sitting next to a young homeless woman late last fall all too well. It had been raining most of the night, and although she had a tent, she was cold and miserable. Tents designed for summer camping, it seems, are not particularly adequate in wintertime. And a sleeping bag, even a reasonably good one, provides precious little insulation from the cold ground of late November or early December. To make matters worse, she, and many like her, had few options for keeping warm during the day.

The young woman sat next to me and wept.

There has to be a better way.

This year’s Point in Time Count, conducted by the Homeless Leadership Coalition in late January, served a couple of purposes. It was required by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, which allocates money for programs to help the homeless and for affordable housing. And, a broader count that includes those who may have a place to sleep but may be teetering on the brink of homelessness gives community leaders a sense of what the need in our area really is.

The picture this year wasn’t pretty. Some 493 people were actually homeless in Deschutes County on Jan. 25. Economic problems were the main cause of their plight, and 57 percent had lived in houses or apartments in the area before their current difficulties.

Those people were our neighbors then, and they still are, by my reckoning. And yet as a community or group of communities, we continue to fall short.

We do have a variety of options for shelter housing, to be sure. Bethlehem Inn and Shepherd’s House in Bend both provide housing for the homeless, though in the dead of winter they may well be at capacity.

The Bend Church (United Methodist Church) downtown provides a backup in cold weather. It offers emergency shelter for women and operates its Back Door Cafe, which serves breakfast and gives the homeless a place to come in from the cold at least once a week. It offers a variety of social services, as well. In fact, churches in most Central Oregon communities open their doors in the coldest weather.

Too, between places like Family Kitchen in Bend and Jericho Road in Redmond and food pantries in every community, just finding enough to eat may not be the problem it once was.

But spending all day long out in the cold is no picnic, and for the region’s homeless that’s too often the choice they have. The supply of homeless people, in other words, outstrips the warm space available to them in the coldest weather. They may congregate at grocery stores and on Cascades East Transit buses in Bend or hang out at the library, but none of those places is really designed to function as a daytime warming shelter for more than a handful of people.

I don’t know what the answer to the problem is.

I do know this, however. Without strong leadership from government, the problem may be unsolvable. And that puts cities and counties in a tough spot. Neither elected officials nor hired bureaucrats are heartless, but they have only limited resources available to them. And I know that last winter, more than a handful spent time and effort working to assure the city’s homeless population was safe.

So far no one has died in this region because there’s no warming center open during the day, and I hope that never changes.

— Janet Stevens is deputy editor of The Bulletin. Contact: 541-617-7821, jstevens@bendbulletin.com