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‘Proud of what we achieved today’: Organizers reflect on first of its kind China Hat houseless response roundtable

(Update: Adding video, comments from participants)

Large gathering, first of its kind, also hears from homeless resident, homeowners

BEND, Ore. (KTVZ) – A wide-ranging group of federal, state and local agencies, organizations and those directly affected by the homeless camps along China Hat Road south of Bend – the homeless and the homeowners – came together Thursday for a first of its kind roundtable to better coordinate and advance what can be done to address the issues and dangers.

The nearly two-hour roundtable meeting (livestream/recording below) was convened by the Coordinated Houseless Response Office, made up of representatives from Deschutes County and the cities of Bend, La Pine, Redmond and Sisters.

Those on hand included representatives the Deschutes National Forest and the U.S. Intergovernmental Council on Homelessness to discuss a coordinated effort to address homelessness on federal land, specifically China Hat Road.

At the start, CHRO Board Vice-Chair and Bend Mayor Pro Tem Megan Perkins talked about the goal of moving people to safer places, for everyone, including shelters and managed camps “that are safe and dignified.”

 "China Hat Is a very complicated area," Perkins told NewsChannel 21 after the meeting. "We all have to have a part to play in this. But we also know that we really need our federal partners to help us with this, because we have very limited tools here in our region.."

"It has been a lot of work and a lot of conversations to get everybody here. But, I'm just really proud of what we achieved today," she added.

Deschutes National Forest Supervisor Holly Jewkes thanked the many volunteers who do what they can to clean the trash and junk out of the forests. She noted that the hundreds of homeless in the forests are “a reflection of what happened as the pandemic set in” as it “grew in scale, scope and intensity.”

Upcoming fuels reduction work in the area poses a challenge, as heavy equipment will be used. Jewkes expressed hope we “find a Central Oregon way” to come together and address the issue.

"We’re doing some active fuels management, not area things like mowing, and that will continue over the next many years," Jewkes said. "I think we're working on clean-up efforts with our partners, all those sorts of things that look to restore natural resources out in the area."

J.W. Terry of Central Oregon Veterans Outreach decried “too much them and us in our country,” and said, “This crap about not picking up your phone and talking with your partners is goofy. … If we’re going to do this, and do this together … we’ve got to work together.”

Linda Long shared her own personal path to homelessness, having “escaped” from Portland to Bend, then “forced to move to China Hat.”

“I was fascinated in how invisible I became,” she said, noting the personal, systemic and cultural barriers to safe housing.

“Why not leverage the skills and talents of people who are already there?” to be paid to help themselves and each other, including one man “who can literally fix anything.”

“Hire the homeless to help themselves and each other,” Long urged. “Most folks don’t want a handout – they want a hand up and a way out.”

Two nearby homeowners talked of the worrisome, even frightening issues that have arisen the past five years, from fires, exploding propane tanks and a lot of trash to trespassing, crime and threats.

Another homeowner spoke of the “game of whack-a-mole” and lack of accountability that draws people from out of the region who know they “won’t be bothered” out China Hat.

The homeowner said, “I don’t think we can wait until we have all the pieces aligned on homelessness to address the dangers to the community and to the homeless in the community now.”

Katy Miller, regional adviser with the U.S. Intergovernmental Council on Homelessness, told the group, “We are your partners in this work. It’s very challenging. You have our support.”

“We have found when we work together at all levels of government, neighbors, public health, emergency responders, business through intensive communication and coordination, we can help people move inside, connect to services and end the crisis of homeless.”

And she said one key is to “also prevent people from becoming homeless in the first place.”

“We will not always agree on everything,” Miller said, but it’s important to “work with urgency to move people inside” and “help them move forward in their lives.”

U.S. Housing and Urban Development regional officials also committed to help however they can, and the chief of staff for Rep. Cliff Bentz, R-Ore., also was on hand as the large group's discussion progressed into specific programs that can help people and address the goals being outlined.

One discussion topic was getting past estimates of the hundreds of people and number of camps to actual data and headcounts, to know how large the problem is and how it's evolving, to better address the issues.

Also discussed, inevitably, was the challenge of change and what can be done for some who won't accept or refuse offers of help and prefer the lives and lifestyle in the woods for the tradeoff of little or no restrictions or rules they must follow.

The CHRO Board held a follow-up meeting in the early afternoon to discuss the roundtable and next steps, as well as funding for shelter pods, other projects in the works and a data dashboard.

"This is the beginning of a lot of different conversations," Perkins said toward the roundtable's conclusion. "This is a really, really great start."

County Commissioner and CHRO Board Chair Patti Adair said she appreciated the many specifics raised at the roundtable, including new programs and funding to grow existing ones to better address the issues, while also noting, "We've got a situation that's a bit of a tinderbox."

The Coordinated Houseless Response Office hasn't existed without controversy.

After many questioned how little progress the office had made in its first year or so of operation, a NewsChannel 21 report revealed the troubled career history of then-director Cheyenne Purrington.

Purrington then resigned from the post shortly after our report aired in May of 2023.

Since then, the CHRO and partner agencies discussed a more collaborative leadership approach.

"We found that there can't be just one person that is the 'CEO of homelessness' for a region," Perkins said. "And I think the way that the CHRO is operating now, with staff support, has been really effective so far. And you can see that with all of the actions that we've been taking lately."

The Coordinated Houseless Response Office issued this news release after the roundtable Thursday afternoon:

Coordinated Houseless Response Office (CHRO) Partners with Local, Federal and State Government Agencies for an All-Hands-On-Deck Approach to Address Unsheltered Homelessness

BEND – The Deschutes County and Cities of Bend, La Pine, Redmond, and Sisters – Coordinated Houseless Response Office (CHRO) convened an “All-Hands-On-Deck” roundtable with Local, State and Federal agencies along with service providers to learn about and address unsheltered homelessness in the region. With this collaborative effort, CHRO is launching a multi-agency initiative to address unsheltered homelessness on federal land and selected the China Hat encampment in the Deschutes National Forest as the first site.

“We all gathered here today because we are committed to collaborating and finding the best way to serve our shared constituents in Central Oregon,” said CHRO Chair and Deschutes County Commissioner Patti Adair.

Those who attended the roundtable include the Deschutes National Forest, United States Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH); United States Department of Agriculture (USDA); United States Department of Veterans Affairs (VA); United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD); Oregon Federal Executive Boards (OFEB); Deschutes County Sheriff’s Office; Oregon legislators: Senator Ron Wyden’s Office; Senator Jeff Merkley’s Office; Congresswoman Lori Chavez-DeRemer’s Office; and Congressman Cliff Bentz’s Office.

“Addressing houselessness requires a community approach where local, county, state and federal government and community organizations work together to find effective solutions,” said Holly Jewkes, Deschutes National Forest Supervisor. “I have confidence that all of our pooled resources will enable us to better address these challenges for the benefit of the Forest and our community.”

With the CHRO implementing one of its strategic priorities to address the crisis of unsheltered individuals experiencing houselessness, the multi-agency partnership will strengthen and accelerate local efforts to move unsheltered people living in spaces not intended for human habitation into shelters that will ensure a safe and dignified location for individuals or families to reside with opportunities to connect to resources to move into more permanent housing.

“Often local government is the first to respond, but we don’t have jurisdiction and the necessary tools in one toolbox to address all the issues with people experiencing homelessness,” said CHRO Vice-chair and City of Bend Mayor Pro Tem Megan Perkins. “Each agency has its own toolbox to address problems through their available means. By bringing everyone together and implementing an all-hand-on-deck approach, we can enhance our response by becoming more creative in developing solutions we can provide together.”

Multi-agency collaboration and coordination are critical. With Central Oregon’s unique geographic closeness, any action by one jurisdiction impacts the rest of Central Oregon. The CHRO hope to model this China Hat pilot and multi-agency approach for other areas of Central Oregon with large concentrations of unsheltered populations living in forest land.

"With the infusion of funding through the Governor's Executive Order and direct legislative investment, our region has increased shelter capacity by 120 beds, moved over 200 households from being unsheltered into housing, and prevented over 350 households from falling into homelessness.

"This meeting is a critical step toward seeking additional solutions that our community desperately needs. The unhoused crisis playing out on our public lands has created an unsafe public health crisis- something that can be addressed through intentional coordination of resources and collaboration across agencies." said Tammy Baney, Lead-agency Governor’s Executive Order Multi-agency Funding

Through a coordinated approach, agencies will be able to complement and support ongoing efforts by local leaders, including:

  • STRATEGY: Implementation of best practices and guidance from USICH based on the federal agency’s recently released “19 Strategies for Communities to Address Encampments Humanely and Effectively.”
  • TOOL: Support of Central Oregon’s Continuum of Care, Homeless Leadership Coalition in implementing a data dashboard for data transparency, to increase community understanding, improve system-level analysis and reporting, and to help inform decision-making including policy, funding, strategic prioritizing, and impact.
  • HOUSING FIRST: Support the CHRO’s efforts to expand services and grow a continuum of geographically diverse living spaces for unsheltered community members in funding a request for qualifications (RFQ) and eventually a proposal to design, site, and operate.
  • SOLUTIONS: Coming together will bring solutions and tools to the table that may be under-utilized or unknown and may contribute to local efforts in Central Oregon.

“This is the beginning of a new era of collaboration in Central Oregon, and USICH and our federal partners are committed to helping the region align its strategies, priorities, and resources to help people move out of the crisis of unsheltered homelessness and into safe homes,” said USICH Senior Regional Advisor Katy Miller. “Addressing homelessness is very challenging but solvable, and USICH commends Central Oregon for making the choice to work together with community members, providers, local leaders, and across all levels of government to solve it humanely and effectively.”

During the roundtable, participating members discussed moving forward by:

  • Exploring opportunities and funding for a peer navigation program for China Hat.
  • Project-based leasing agreements to create arrangements with property owners to match funding requirements for voucher eligibility and create a pool of funding to augment HUD vouchers to place more people in permanent housing.
  • HUD Supported landlord recruitment.
  • Providing dedicated outreach workers for veterans and freeing up resources for others.
  • Potential for federal funding for increased outreach at China Hat.
  • Assistance with fuel reduction and fire prevention work at China Hat.

Deschutes County and the Cities of Bend, La Pine, Redmond, and Sisters united to champion House Bill 4123 (HB 4123) and were awarded $1 million in state funding to operationalize their regional efforts to address homelessness. A County and Cities Coordinated Houseless Response Office (CHRO) was established in 2022 to strengthen their communities’ homeless response. The CHRO is not intended to be duplicative of existing work in the community, nor is it intended to take on the role of direct service delivery. In compliance with HB 4123, the CHRO’s role is to:

  • Provide high-level coordination, centralized communication, and strategic visioning;
  • Identify opportunities to more effectively leverage existing funds and access new resources; and
  • Create a more equitable, accessible, and responsive system for residents experiencing homelessness.

The Deschutes National Forest spans 1.6 million acres in Central Oregon and encompasses ecotypes ranging from the crest of the Cascades to high desert environments. The Forest includes three ranger districts, Sisters, Bend-Fort Rock and Crescent, and the Redmond Air Center, home to forest, regional and national fire assets and employees. The Forest also includes the highly visited and geologically unique Newberry National Volcanic Monument, one of the few national monuments in Forest Service management.

Article Topic Follows: Government-politics

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Isabella Warren

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