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Bend councilors wrestle with homeless issue, OK new campsite removal policy

(Update: Adding video, Councilors adopt policy, with direction to staff)

First focus is on campsite deemed 'unsafe' on NE Emerson Avenue; critics say city should not conduct a 'sweep'

BEND, Ore. (KTVZ) -- The Bend City Council, meeting in person for the first time in over a year due to the pandemic, were briefed on and wrestled with efforts to address one of the city's most challenging issues: the growing ranks of homeless, many living in campsites on the streets. They later unanimously approved the city manager's campsite management and possible removal policy in city rights of way, with added direction to staff on other steps to take.

Councilors discussed the ongoing homelessness situation in the city with various service providers as they attempt to provide 500 shelter beds to those in need -- not an easy task, nor as fast as city critics want.

With new numbers underscoring the growing problem of homelessness in Bend, and a new shelter in place, councilors were briefed on the new city policy to remove some homeless camps if deemed unsafe for campers or the public.

According to the preliminary annual Point in Time homeless count by the Homeless Leadership Coalition, homelessness in the region has seen a 13% increase from last year, totaling nearly 1,100 in a survey done earlier this year, including 169 unaccompanied youth, 891 adults 18+, and 89 veterans. Those involved say the numbers are no doubt much higher than those who could be counted at that time.

In partnership with NeighborImpact and the city, the Shepherd's House in Bend this week reopened its 70-bed, low-barrier shelter on Second Street.

Shepherd's House's Director of Emergency Services John Lodise says they have a goal or providing year-round services to those in need, but will only intake individuals between 6 p.m. and 10 p.m. for an overnight stay.

"Then we get to the part of the night where we turn out the lights at 10 p.m. and because it's summertime, we don't want to encourage a lot of coming and going because it's less safe," Lodise said. "We're gonna lock the doors and unless its an emergency circumstance we're gonna stop intake at 10 o'clock." 

Associate City Attorney Elizabeth Oshel says they are attempting to address the ongoing problem at NE Emerson Avenue and Second Street in Bend as it has become a "matter of public concern."

"When a particular location starts getting more calls for service to police or other city departments or is otherwise identified by staff as raising health and safety concerns, staff would go ahead and analyze the location under the policy for the increasing presence of those conditions," Oshel said. "And then based on that analysis the city manager could declare a particular section of right of way where people are camping as an unsafe campsite." 

City Manager Eric King says the city is in the midst of a multi-year effort to increase mobility options, design safer streets, and reduce or eliminate fatal and serious injuries on city streets, so a policy should be put in place to manage homeless camps on city rights of way.

The policy sets out steps and procedures the city manager will use to determine when to remove established campsites on city rights-of-way.

King says this is intended to be used to remove those established campsites on city rights of way that are having the greatest impact on public health and safety, including for those individuals residing or camping at a particular location.

An “impact analysis” of the Emerson Avenue site, completed by police Captain Brian Kindel, noted nearly 40 tents and makeshifts on the street, the complaints from nearby businesses such as a “significant collection of waste,” some thrown in bags onto a car lot. Police documented 41 calls for service to the street between late April and June 1.

Councilor Rita Schenkelberg and several colleagues said the situation on Emerson Avenue is untenable and needs resolution, but urged revisions to the policy to provide more time for service providers to work with the residents. Schenkelberg says she hopes to avoid using a broad policy on all homeless camps, and that a specific policy could be put in place for Emerson Avenue, then revisited after what is done there to see what needs changing.

Councilor Anthony Broadman drew colleagues’ support in wanting to commit $1.5 million in American Rescue Plan funds toward siting a managed camp and working with Deschutes County to find a suitable suite. But King noted that the Veterans Village on the city’s north end, now nearing completion, shows that such projects are complex and take time to come to fruition.

However, several speakers during the visitors' section of the agenda who help the homeless sharply chastised the city for even considering moving the people living on Emerson Avenue without having ensured they had some place to go, and making their serious issues, from addiction to mental health, only worse, endangering their lives. They said they have been working to help the residents and that there are portable toilets and trash services at the location.

The motion to approve the new policy, approved unanimously later in the evening, added: "With the addition of notifying multiple service providers a minimum of 2 weeks before any closure, and direct staff to begin implementation, based on the criteria in the policy, only at Emerson and 2nd, and to come back to Council with an after-action report for consideration of changes to the policy and further direction on application.

"Additionally, Council recognizes the urgent need to establish near- and short-term options and directs staff to bring information about options back before Council, including a managed camp through a partnership with the county and other agencies with ARPA funds and matches, coordination for COVID safety with Mosaic Medical and St Charles, establishing pop-up navigation center for service coordination and a day center, and ensuring there are bathroom facilities for sanitation and safety of people who are unhoused."

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Alec Nolan

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