For the first time since 1999, all the residents of Bethlehem Inn ate dinner in the same building at the same time Monday night. The meal was an initiation of sorts: Work on a new facility that houses services, including a kitchen and two dining rooms, plus housing for 10 families, is just about complete.

It’s been a long but rewarding effort, says Gwenn Wysling, executive director of Bend’s oldest homeless shelter, which began as an effort of churches in Bend and for a time rotated from church to church on a regular basis. In fact, it wasn’t until 2004 it found a place to call its own, at least for a time.

That year it moved into the old county work-release program building. Then, three years later, with help and money from both Deschutes County and the City of Bend, it purchased the old Econo Lodge motel on N. U.S. Highway 97, where it remains today. Nearly every day since the beginning, volunteers, now numbering 200 or more, have fired up their kitchen stoves, cooked and delivered hot dinners to the inn’s residents.

Now, one wing of the old motel is gone, and another will be torn down soon. It’s about time. The buildings weren’t meant to last forever, and they are showing their age. The new buildings — this one and a residence building for single men and women that will open next year — are better built, far more energy-efficient and meet Americans with Disabilities Act standards.

Perhaps most important, the new buildings will allow the inn to serve more homeless families and individuals in our community.

It was the community that made the project happen, Wysling says. As one example, Bend’s four Rotary Clubs got together and raised more than $200,000 for a commercial kitchen, which will allow meals to be prepared on site. The Central Oregon Builders Association and the Central Oregon Association of Realtors faced off in a fundraising challenge. And a host of charitable foundations, trusts and individuals have contributed. Board members past and present stepped up, and the project has received at least two major anonymous gifts.

None of this happened overnight, of course. Wysling took over as the inn’s executive director in 2010, and sometime that year she and the board began talking about the project. Jim Long, the city’s former affordable housing manager, provided assistance, as did the Central Oregon Health Council and others.

When all is said and done, the inn and its supporters will have raised $9 million for the project. It kicked off its public campaign a year ago, Wysling says, with $5 million in hand; it now has $7.5 million and hopes to close out July with another $500,000. That leaves $1 million to raise in the following 12 months.

If that sounds like a lot, consider what all that money is buying: The inn’s ability to house families has doubled, and when the second building is complete, it will have room for about a third more single men and women. The kitchen now is nearly double the size of a small kitchen it replaced, and it meets commercial standards. All residents will be able to eat at the same time in dining rooms (one for singles, one for families) that flank the kitchen.

There’s more office, program, and meeting space. There’s an enclosed play space for children. And, because of the efficiencies built into the new facilities, the cost of running the inn will drop by about $100 per resident.

In a perfect world, there’d be no need for all of this, but the world is far from perfect. Too many families and individuals in the region are only a large doctor bill or some other financial strike away from being homeless, and most of the homeless in Deschutes County come from Deschutes County.

And, while housing prices are high here and no doubt contribute to the problem, it’s not just an issue in Bend. Oregon had nearly 14,000 homeless men, women and children just 18 months ago, according to the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness.

Fortunately, Bend does have Bethlehem Inn, and fortunately, the inn has the supporters to allow it to grow. It won’t solve the homelessness problem, but it surely helps, and that’s important.

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

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