The tragic deaths of Joe and Lonnie, two unhoused Bend citizens, during the recent heat wave are still being grieved in the community. And in that grief come hard questions like, “How was this allowed to happen?” and “Who is to blame?”
The recent evictions at Emerson in Bend are a good place to start. Bend City Council and staff made a policy decision to evict houseless campers from one of the largest camps in the area. The Emerson camp had regular trash pickups, access to portable restrooms donated by the community, and was conveniently located near service providers. One diabetic camper appreciated that a local business allowed him to use their electrical outlet to charge the medical devices that his pre-existing condition required. The city chose to post eviction notices without providing alternative housing to the campers. That meant that the houseless campers had to leave the majority of their structures and possessions at Emerson, forced to face the elements without the protection of their shelters. Furthermore, the evictions the city chose to pursue, despite the earnest pleas made by service providers and community organizers, made the work of service providers much harder by scattering campers and causing wide-spread fear. Not only do evictions of this nature go against CDC guidance regarding COVID-19 safety, they are more costly for taxpayers than humane alternatives. Who wins here? It seems that everyone is losing.
But here’s the thing about blame: eventually, it touches each of us. Truth be told, the entire community is to blame for these deaths too. We are all accountable to each other. And we allow a culture to persist in Bend that criminalizes houselessness. We allow it by electing officials that will not listen to the people on the ground who know what’s needed, by standing idle as the police department pushes people out of the only shelter they have, by saying nothing, and by thinking “That can’t happen to me.” Most of us are closer to being houseless than we recognize. An injury, loss of a job, caring for an ill family member. These things can happen to you. And, if it did, wouldn’t you want a community that cares? A community that won’t turn its back on you and your family?
Blame aside, there are more important questions we should be asking:
1. Does the City of Bend have the resources to prevent loss of life among houseless campers? The answer is unequivocally yes. Once the deaths were reported on Sunday, the community, city, and county stepped up with countless donations of ice, water, misters, food and an air-conditioned RV. This massive outpouring of resources prevented further loss of life. Had service providers, organizers, and the campers themselves been listened to in the first place, then perhaps these deaths could have been prevented.
2. What do we do in the future to prevent deaths like these? Be proactive, not reactive, when extreme weather is forecasted. We need many more shelters like Veteran’s Village, Project Turnkey, and managed camps. The city must play an active role in discussions between service providers and Deschutes County staff when planning for emergencies. The city and community must seek out creative solutions to difficult problems, rather than simply accepting the status quo and letting people die. If we do not, the losses of our neighbors like Joe, Lonnie, and David Savory will become a routine occurrence rather than a noteworthy tragedy.
Above all, it’s readers like you who have to get involved. If you feel uncomfortable reading this, good. Call during City Council meetings to demand better of your elected officials. Email Council with your concerns. Vote for elected officials who take action in the face of injustice instead of offering hollow platitudes. Ask questions, push, and share the resources you have with others. If our leaders won’t step up to save lives, then we must.