Elected officials in largely rural Deschutes County, Oregon, and its largest city of Bend, are debating where to let unhoused residents sleep. County officials rejected the latest proposal for an RV site. Meanwhile, Bend residents and businesses are fighting the city’s plans for managed homelessness sites.
Jim Porter, board chair of Central Oregon Veterans Village and former chief of the Bend Police Department, told Filter that the city and county have spent the last two years debating temporary spots for unhoused people to live.
The region barely had any homelessness 30 years ago, he said. But as industrial jobs left and housing prices rose amid a tourism boom, the number of people without a place to live rose dramatically. According to the latest survey, nearly 1,100 people are unhoused in the whole county—up 13 percent since 2020.
“Whenever they select a location, there’s an immediate pushback from neighbors.”
The city is approaching a two-phase plan: first, to create an immediate camping site where residents have access to basic services; and second, to create a “mini village” with physical shelters, heating, water, sanitation, internet and community rooms. That would in theory give residents the stability to seek employment and other services.
“The problem they have is ‘NIMBY’,” Porter said. “Whenever they select a location, there’s an immediate pushback from neighbors. To a degree, we and the city could have done a better job of communicating what those camps would look like. The standard that’s generally successful is a fenced-in area, and that’s to protect the people inside the camp.”
“The second is it’s low-barrier,” he continued. “Maybe someone’s intoxicated or under the influence of addiction but once you’re accepted into the camp you can’t use drugs and you can’t possess drugs or alcohol in the camping area. Third is, 24/7 monitoring.”
The extent to which a facility that doesn’t allow on-site drug use should be considered low-barrier is a contentious debate that has cropped up in many places. A more immediate obstacle for Bend is that the city owns little land that it can use for this purpose.
The city is also pursuing the real long-term solution: permanent housing. But “that’s three to four years out.”
It does have two small sites, however. One is located next to two schools, some industrial buildings and a residential area. Some housed residents there are resisting the city’s efforts to build that site. A second location owned by the city, in the Juniper Ridge area, is in what’s primarily an industrial and business zone. There, it’s businesses and investors who are attacking efforts to temporarily house people—also arguing they would pose a risk to a nearby senior home.
Amid all this, the city is also pursuing the real long-term solution: permanent housing. “They just got authorization for a zero-to-low-income housing area in an area the city incorporated,” Porter said. “That’s three to four years out; quite frankly I don’t think anyone can [currently] go from a tent to an apartment.”
At this point, with winter already here, elected officials have to act. Porter believes the city will move faster than the county.
“The city is absolutely going to move forward with a camp in one way or another,” he said. “I see the city moving probably within the next 30 days to dedicate a location, and type of camp they want and engage vendors to build out those camps and manage them.”
The county had put forth an alternative proposal: to create an RV village in an 11-acre industrial lot on Highway 20, about 5 miles outside the city center. However, the site lacks water, electrical or public transit services.
On December 15, the Board of County Commissioners voted against the site. They highlighted its lack of services and distance from the city, as well as the fact it would need to be re-zoned. Instead, they discussed the need to invest more in local shelter beds.
“We have a successful model of having managed RV parks, whether it be in a church parking lot or a vacant lot.”
Porter expressed skepticism about the board’s commitment to doing what is necessary, arguing the proposed RV park was not a viable solution. He suggested that because of an election next year, the commissioners may avoid doing anything locally controversial.
But Gwenn Wysling, executive director of shelter provider Bethlehem Inn, told Filter she believes the county is serious about addressing homelessness. She admitted the rejected proposal was not ideal, but said that something like it could work temporarily.
“An RV park does provide some opportunities for people to have a place where there’s heat and some basic utilities, a kitchen, a bathroom,” she said.
Another immediate option could even be implemented without action from the county or city. Under Bend’s Safe Parking Program, private property owners with extra space can agree to let unhoused people in vehicles park overnight on their land, free of charge.
“We have a successful model of having managed RV parks,” Wysling said, “whether it be in a church parking lot or a vacant lot so that folks can be somewhat held accountable—it’s not a free-for-all, versus parking on the side of the street and running into challenges of being unwelcome in an area where they’re not supposed to be parking.”
Photograph by Virginia State Parks via Flickr/Creative Commons 2.0.