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Bend councilors discuss Emerson Avenue homeless camp removal

(Update: Adding video, comments)

Service providers say campers have moved to areas like railroads, canals, DRW area

BEND, Ore. (KTVZ) -- Last month, the city of Bend closed the Emerson Avenue homeless camp in southeast Bend after declaring it a public safety and health hazard, under a new policy.

During Wednesday evening's council meeting, city staff and councilors discussed an after-action report summarizing what went well in the closure and camp removal, and what needs to be improved moving forward.

According to city staff, the majority of homeless individuals had left before Emerson Avenue was officially closed on June 23.

The city provided what they say is clear, consistent, and timely communication with campers ahead of the closure so individuals could prepare to leave.

Service providers were also allowed to assist campers with packing and relocating, to help transition individuals to places like Bend's Shepherd's House, among other areas.

Bend's Family Kitchen Program Director Donna Burklo said campers were provided with access to phones within minutes of the closure, equipment, coffee, water, food, and were also set up with necessary medications or prescriptions.

Burklo added that campers said Bend Police officers were "kind" and "respectful" during the process.

Councilor Megan Perkins asked service providers if any individuals that were removed have been lost in the process, and if so, where have they moved.

Another service provider, REACH's Executive Director Stacey Witte, says the majority of campers have dispersed, moving 2-4 times since the closure.

"A fair amount of people have gone to Hunnell Road," Witte said. "I do have a handful of folks that left Emerson that went down towards the DRW (Deschutes River Woods) area."

Witte said others have also dispersed to railroad and canal areas across Bend. And all agreed that the various efforts to find safe places, such as a managed camp, are the real answer that cannot come soon enough.

"We all know this, that's the long-term goal, is to not have another Emerson pop up, or a Hunnell Road or behind Space Age (Fuel)," Witte said. "That's where we need to address that gap in services."

Colleen Thomas, homeless services coordinator at Deschutes County Behavioral Health, said it was good to have service providers coordinate the effort to help those hit by the homeless camp closure, noting that it was “traumatizing for service providers as well. It shouldn't have to take a closure for that opportunity (to coordinate) to happen.”

City Manager Eric King said resources being provided at the Hunnell Road homeless site include increased dumpster service, more portable toilets, a shower truck, misting station and more hand-washing stations.

Several speakers during the visitors' section of the council's first meeting in a month, some who speak frequently at the meetings, berated the councilors for evicting the residents without a safe place for them to go. One of the men forced to leave was one of the two men who died days later amid record heat at the Hunnell Road campsite.

While the state medical examiner later determined the cause of their deaths were not heat-related, some speakers Wednesday night sharply attacked councilors, accusing them of "murder" and of killing the men with their policies. One was not allowed to speak further for violating council rules about such direct attacks.

City of Bend budget adjustment recommendations prioritize housing and maintaining service levels for community

During Wednesday's City Council work session, the Council supported staff recommendations for a $13.1 million budget adjustment focused on supporting housing and meeting service needs for the community. The budget adjustments support the 2021-2023 City Council Goals and include $6 million of federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding, with the remainder coming from state funding and other sources. Council is expected to adopt the recommended budget adjustments at its August 18 meeting.

“These proposed budget adjustments support our pandemic recovery efforts and reflect growing needs in our community,” said City Manager Eric King. “They will provide additional critical resources to help respond to some of Bend’s most pressing issues.”

To support the Council’s housing goal, $7.5 million is proposed for a navigation center for unhoused community members, renovations and other costs related to Project Turnkey, and additional funding for affordable housing. Funding is also recommended for establishing a managed camp for those who are unhoused. Adding staff to support housing production and programs is also part of the recommended budget adjustments.

Another $4.2 million is proposed to help meet service demands by adding staffing to support record-setting building permit activity, equity in community engagement, and administration services. ARPA funding is recommended to fund some staff positions that were vacant and eliminated during 2020 COVID-19 budget reductions.

Additional recommendations include $1.2 million to support pandemic recovery efforts such as utility assistance, workforce development, childcare, non-profit community assistance and Downtown planning. There is also $200,000 allocated for transportation maintenance and other transportation-related projects.

Article Topic Follows: Government-politics
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Alec Nolan

Alec Nolan is a multimedia journalist for NewsChannel 21. Learn more about Alec here.

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