A former Bend mayor is behind a new nonprofit hoping to pressure city councilors to do more about the homeless situation – starting with removing and deterring homeless camps on city and public property.
“We have a choice about whether we as a community will tolerate and condone unsafe homeless camps,” according to a release from the Bend Humanity Coalition‘s Jeff Eager, who served on the Bend City Council more than a decade ago.
He said the nonprofit would give community members a voice on the issue.
“The Bend Humanity Coalition is a group of concerned Bend residents – parents, small business owners, and just plain normal people – who refuse to accept that Bend must become like Portland or Seattle, where in the name of acceptance, city government fosters a dangerous and unhealthy way of life for people experiencing homelessness,” according to the group’s website.
According to the release, the group formed in the wake of the deaths of two men living in a homeless camp on Hunnell Road in Bend during a June heatwave.
“It is inhumane and unsafe to encourage people to live on the streets and other public property in Bend,” Eager said. “The Bend Humanity Coalition exists to demonstrate to city leaders that these camps are unacceptable to our community; that it is not ‘welcoming’ to our neighbors experiencing homelessness to create an environment in which they perish on our streets; that homeless camps, while most dangerous to those who live in them, also create risks to surrounding property owners and residents and reflect poorly on our community.”
The homeless population in Central Oregon has increased significantly in recent years.
The Homeless Leadership Coalition counted 1,099 people during its one-night “Point in Time” tally on January 20th.
“We have a choice about whether we as a community will tolerate and condone unsafe homeless camps.” – Bend Humanity Coalition
That’s a 13% jump from last year and a 40% jump from 2018.
In June the city partnered with NeighborImpact and The Shepherd’s House to open a new 30-bed, low-barrier shelter on 2nd Street.
The camps would be fenced and run by social services, but they’re running into opposition because one of the locations is adjacent to a high school and near an elementary school.
Bend City Councilor Melanie Kebler learned about the new group on Friday.
She found it ironic that the nonprofit’s name included the word “humanity” but “they seem to be advocating for criminal citations and arrests” for people living on the streets.
Kebler said this city council has made tackling homelessness a priority, but it need to be an ongoing priority with a long-term plan.
“This is such a big problem to put our arms around,” she said. “We’re trying. We’re exploring what’s achievable and what can have the most impact quickly.”
The Bend Humanity Coalition’s website includes a form letter the group hopes people send to city leaders, demanding they address the crisis.
“It’s a good time to get educated on this topic.”
– Bend City Councilor Melanie Kebler
And the group acknowledges the city has spent millions on the homelessness issue.
“To be effective, that investment must be accompanied with a commitment to enforcing laws designed to deter camping on city and other public property,” the letter states.
About 40 homeless campers were removed from Emerson Road in late June, pushing them to other parts of the city where makeshift villages have popped up.
City officials and ODOT have worked together previously to clean up some of the camps along Highway 97 in town while allowing the residents to stay put.
“There are legal limits to what the city can do to remove homeless camps. That is not an excuse to do nothing,” the coalition’s website says. “The city does no one, least of all people experiencing homelessness, a favor by encouraging and facilitating camping on city property. Instead, the city should use the considerable legal authority at its disposal to make clear that camping on city property is unsafe and unlawful, and to steer people experiencing homelessness toward services and living spaces that are more humane and more safe.”
Kebler said she’s always interested to hear what the community has to say about issues that affect them.
But more can be done than writing a letter.
“Get involved with our service providers and ask them the best way to help,” she said.
“It’s not so simple to just go close the camps and say we solved the issue. Talk to someone you know who is more involved in this problem and get their perspective. It’s a good time to get educated on this topic.”