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Officials: Purrington’s departure could spur homelessness progress in Deschutes County

(Update: Adding video, comments by Bend mayor pro-tem, county commissioners, Hunnell Road residents)

'We should've been a lot further along, in terms of having a strategic plan for our community'

BEND, Ore. (KTVZ) – When Cheyenne Purrington submitted her resignation Tuesday as director of Deschutes County's Coordinated Houseless Response Office, she provided a five-page “repositioning plan," urging major changes in its setup and processes to ensure the $1 million state-funded effort can make progress on the tough issues.

Officials reacting to her departure agreed that changes are needed but in general did not quickly embrace the specifics she offered.

In her combination resignation letter and "draft proposal" of recommendations to county Deputy Administrator Erik Kropp, Purrington said her office had “achieved several major accomplishments,” such as helping secure about $14 million in emergency funding from Gov. Tina Kotek’s executive order, but said “there remain notable challenges that continue to impede meaningful progress.”

Her decision to step down didn't appear to surprise city and county leaders. Governing board chair and Deschutes County Commissioner Patti Adair explained the process of how Purrington was hired.

"When Cheyenne was hired, we had service providers in the room. I believe we had like five candidates who made it to the very end of the process" Adair told us Wednesday.

With the resignation of Purrington, the board will begin the search for a new executive. Bend City Councilor and Mayor Pro-Tem Megan Perkins is also on the board.

"I think we should be -- after nine months, we should've been a lot further along in terms of having a strategic plan for our community," Perkins said.

Deschutes County and the cities of Bend, La Pine, Redmond and Sisters were recipients of House Bill 4123, which provided $1 million in funding to strengthen Central Oregon’s houseless response.

The Coordinated Houseless Response Office has a board of directors that is made up of one county commissioner and one representative from each city council in Bend, La Pine, Redmond and Sisters.  

Perkins was on the board when Purrington was hired last September.

"There was a fundamental difference in how Cheyenne viewed this role for the community and how the cities of Bend, Redmond, Sisters, La Pine and Deschutes County view the role, and how the community viewed the role," she said

Adair hinted at Purrington not getting enough help in her role to be an effective director.

"I know Deschutes County is a lot bigger than Tahoe population-wise, the challenges," she said. "And you have to remember, we have a lot of different groups that really want to help. Collaboration is very important."

Purrington's track record includes a stint in the same role she had in Deschutes County in South Lake Tahoe. The Tahoe Coalition for the Homeless, previously led by Purrington, purchased three properties to convert into long-term housing via Project Homekey.

But as of December 2022, the California Department of Justice was threatening litigation against the Tahoe Coalition for breach of contract and mismanaging funds after the coalition was awarded $8.5 million.

Purrington left that coalition in September to take the job in Deschutes County.

County Commissioner Phil Chang had previously expressed his concern for a lack of progress: "The governing board has not set clear direction for the office on what it's supposed to be doing and how it's supposed to be doing it."

Meanwhile, a woman living at the homeless encampment along Hunnell Road said that after letting Bend city councilors know about the needs her neighbors have, she hasn't been approached by public officials offering help.

Michelle Hester said, "They need to come down here and see us. We're not harmful -- we won't bite you. We all smile, and we're basically all friendly. So I'd like to see them come down and talk to us."

Nick Schindler says he's a pastor with Redemption Railroad Ministries who aims to serve communities suffering from homelessness. He hopes whoever the county hires next will take the time to come meet the people the serve.

"In order to adequately represent a cause, you've got to know it like the back of your hand," he said Wednesday. "You've got to know the challenges -- especially the economic challenges."

Board officials for the Coordinated Houseless Response Office say they are confident they can be effective going forward.

Chang concluded, "We will need to make substantial changes in governance, structure, oversight, support of the office for it to be successful."

Hester told us, "I'm hoping that something happens, because we need help out here."

Purrington recommended in her resignation letter that her $149,000-a-year position be replaced with three full-time staffers.

Purrington said she shared the challenges she'd faced with many in recent months but that her memo (see below) provides a “consolidated overview of challenges and specific recommendations” going forward.

“I’m mindful that ours is just one of several pilot communities funded as part of an untested idea, with the goal of determining what works, what doesn’t, and what needs to change,” Purrington wrote. “I accepted this position in that spirit of learning, collaborating and bending the curve on homelessness at a regional scale.”

Among those challenges is what she called “undefined roles and responsibilities for the Office, including Governing Board, Advisory Council and staff.”

She recommended, for example, eliminating the position she's held (with a salary of $149,000 a year) and instead having three full-time staff who can support the county Board of Commissioners in their decision-making.

“This will also reduce the public pressure on a single leader who carries much of the perceived responsibility but very little actual authority,” she wrote.

While laying much of the lack of responsibility for any slow progress at commissioners' feet, Purrington also noted the “potential for duplication of efforts or misalignment” with other bodies involved in the homelessness issues, such as the Homeless Leadership Coalition.

She also urged shifting office oversight from the county to the Central Oregon Intergovernmental Council, and creating formal agreements with Crook and Jefferson counties “to create a true regional approach to ending homelessness.”

“We thank Cheyenne for her service and her work to establish the Coordinated Houseless Response Office,” said Nick Lelack, Deschutes County administrator.  

Asked her reaction to Purrington's departure, Bend Mayor Melanie Kebler told NewsChannel 21, "It's very important that the CHRO remain on track and while I thank Ms. Purrington for her service, I believe this change is necessary for the CHRO to move forward productively."

Article Topic Follows: Deschutes County

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Blake Mayfield

Blake Mayfield is a multimedia journalist for NewsChannel 21. Learn more about Blake here.

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