More than 500,000 people in the U.S. are homeless. They do not know where they will sleep tonight or if they will eat the next day. Break that down for Central Oregon and, on any given night, there are just under 2,000 people sleeping in the cold.
What you might not know is the largest concentration of those unhoused in Deschutes County surrounds the city of Sisters. So, after yet another decision by that city to deny a request for a winter warming shelter — the second in less than a year — Central Oregon Daily News wanted to know why a community that was offered federal and state funding to accommodate such a vulnerable population would turn its back yet again.
Dined in Sisters? Someone homeless may have served you.
Sisters, a gem of the High Desert, is known for big events like the annual Sisters Folk Festival, the internationally attended Outdoor Quilt Show and the Sisters Rodeo. The city has built, honed and protected its reputation as a western Camelot in the shadow of the Cascades.
“The Sisters Way is a uniqueness has to always harken back to what we have and what we’ve had in the past and make sure we don’t ruin that,” said Mayor Michael Preedin.
And the Sisters Way has little tolerance for anything that could disrupt the reputation that has taken decades to create.
“Not everybody really fits into a box of ‘This is what homelessness is,'” said Hanna, who is homeless and living in Sisters with her partner, Jeremy.
Hanna and Jeremy bought into the Sisters Way a different way. They are two of the dozens of local, full-time employees who help keep businesses there running and tourists fed. But at night, Hanna and Jeremy return to a trailer in the woods — as do more than 100 others in this town of 3,000.
Central Oregon Daily News is not revealing their identities. Not even their parents know they are homeless. And as Jeremy tells us, they know how most people in the town view them.
“‘If these people are homeless, they’re probably sketchy’ I feel like kind of gets people not even being able to get jobs around here,” Jeremy said.
If you’ve been to the historic Sno Cap Drive-In, you’ve probably seen Hanna and Jeremy. They serve thousands of ice cream cones all summer. They flip burgers and bag fries. The Sno Cap is one of the few businesses in Sisters that recognizes the value and reliability of the homeless population. In fact, their boss also returns to a tent in the woods after clocking out each night.
“We know people who make your sandwiches at Subway, people who make your burgers, people who serve your coffee,” Hanna said.
“They do want to get on their feet. It’s just really not the easiest,” Jeremy said.
‘They drained everything we had’
This couple’s fate turned when their life savings was wiped out in a rental scam. They let their guard down and $5,000 slipped away when they became desperate to find housing once they found out Hanna was due with a baby girl in January.
“They drained everything we had,” Hanna said.
“And that’s where it started to go downhill is trying to make that savings again and to be able to actually get into somewhere,” Jeremy said.
Despite the obvious value many of these “People in the Woods” as they’re called here in Sisters, the city has struggled to give back.
“Expecting the cooperation was naïve on our part,” said Lou Blanchard with the Sisters Cold Weather Shelter.
Cold weather shelter denied
Winter is returning to the woods and despite another effort by one of Sisters’ most persistent non-profits to create a cold weather shelter, the mayor and city council did not see a good fit.
Blanchard is a member of that board, spending hours each day connecting with and providing services to Sisters’ homeless in the woods. His Sisters Cold Weather Shelter non-profit submitted a proposal to the city for a shelter that could have been up and running before the first snowfall. It put a contract on a building, received more than $1 million in state grants to buy, renovate and run the shelter in a light industrial complex.
The city council and staff all appeared to be on the same page — at first.
“Yes, I would say we were baited and switched, yeah,” Blanchard said.
The effects of that decision would reverberate from one end of the county to the other. It’s the second time a shelter has been turned down by the City of Sisters, leading Blanchard and his Cold Weather Shelter board to wonder if any accommodating the homeless here is an affront to this town’s seemingly spotless reputation.
“We were able to get our full funding — $1.58 million. That’s a lot of money for a small community like this. At this point in time, because we can’t meet those milestones, that funding is gone,” Blanchard said. “An entity like ours, we can’t even seem to get an office space rented in the city without people getting in an uproar.”
When the City of Sisters first denied the proposal for that cold weather shelter back in September, their findings were filled with all kinds of hypotheticals — things like a lack of law enforcement, if needed; the possibility of vandalism of the businesses nearby; the idea that the shelter would morph into something different.
Then, there was a favorite hypothetical of communities just beginning to grapple with the issue of homelessness: if you build it, people experiencing homelessness will come — and they will come in numbers that will overwhelm the city.
But is that the case?
“This is a very common belief among local governments and local communities, but I do not believe there is any data or analysis that substantiates that belief,” said Deschutes County Commissioner Phil Chang.
More than 2/3 of local homeless were already living in Central Oregon
In fact, the latest homeless Point in Time count shows more than 80% of all homeless in the region are long-time Central Oregonians. More than two-thirds became homeless while living in the communities where they remain today.
What kind of partner does Chang feel Sisters has been in accommodating the homeless population that is their part of this crisis?
“I think the City of Sisters has really struggled to reconcile the fact that … they have one of the highest concentrations of homelessness in the entire county,” Chang said. “Some of those people are members of the Sisters community. They work in local restaurants or local grocery stores.”
When someone here just can’t take the cold another night, where do they go? To shelters in Redmond and Bend. Those non-profits will tell you the largest number of non-locals using their services are coming from Sisters.
“That’s hard on our service providers and it’s hard on our budgets,” said Bend Mayor Melanie Kebler. “We budget for a certain amount and we’re seeing not 80 people but 100 people or more every night. And they try not to turn anyone away but they’re getting to the point where they’re starting to have to turn folks away or say we are full.”
‘A strong partner’
Too full for families like Kelly’s. The mother of three young boys lives year-round in a trailer until they can save up enough to afford something better.
“We woke up one day and realized that we own nothing except for our cars and we were paying $3,000 a month to live in a bad neighborhood. And I didn’t even want my kids to go to school there,” Kelly said.
Both Kelly and her husband work multiple jobs in sisters. Kelly’s three young boys are in sisters schools, on the school wrestling and baseball teams.
The city is convinced it’s doing all it can for families like hers.
“We like to think of ourselves as a strong partner and a convener of a lot of these conversations. Obviously without larger budgets and more staff it’s harder to be more than that. We’re certainly not in the business of actually running shelters or anything,” said Preedin.
No city in Central Oregon runs its own shelter. They all rely on non-profits, close partnerships and an urgency to at least begin to address the crisis.
“We don’t want to wait until someone freezes to death in the woods or a fire starts or we have more people who are living in really unsafe conditions. We need to tackle it with some urgency,” Kebler said.
Funding turned down
The funny thing is, no one has asked the City of Sisters for a dime. Every effort to accommodate the homeless here has been on the backs of volunteers, through federal and state grants and through emergency funding — most of which the mayor and council have turned down.
That has left couples like Josh and Andrea frozen in place.
“When it got real cold not that long ago, the mattress literally froze to the wall,” said Josh.
The couple has spent the last three years in the woods, graduating from a small tent to a 1980s Chevy sedan to a 30-year-old motorhome. They live on Josh’s small disability check and whatever volunteer groups in Sisters can provide. Like so many out here, their biggest concern is the cold.
“I will say the cold is a constant. Because of my disability, it hurts to be cold. It takes a lot of energy from morning to night to stay warm when this stays about 60 degrees in there,” Andrea said, pointing to the RV.
And winter has yet to arrive.
Sisters focusing on affordable housing
Out of sight, out of mind. Few if any visitors to this western-themed enclave will ever know that part of what makes this community tick is dependent on volunteers for survival and the National Forest for shelter.
So why mess with the Sisters Way?
“Because it is a sign of a failed community that so many people who are part of the Sisters workforce, part of the family fabric of that community are living in substandard conditions,” Chang said.
“The highest concentration of homelessness in all of Deschutes County exists right there in Sisters,” he continued. “There will come a time when people recognize that it is a reflection upon their community that this condition exists amongst them.”
What Sisters has focused on in the last year has been affordable housing — millions of dollars between American Rescue Plan funds and state emergency grants.
Affordable housing is a real need in Sisters as home and rental prices there rival those in Bend and Redmond. But it’s not helping those who might just need a shower, a warm meal, laundry or a warm place to lay their head when the forest freezes once again.