Grappling with homeless issues
Last updated 5/11/2021 at Noon
Like communities across the nation, Sisters is grappling with the complex issues surrounding homelessness.
Because of where it’s situated, Sisters’ homeless population largely camps on public lands in the Deschutes National Forest.
Colleen Thomas is Deschutes County’s Homeless Services Coordinator. She and the county’s new Homeless Outreach Coordinator Katie DeVito are working with the Sisters Ranger District to reach out to that population.
“We are working with the Forest Service to do collaborative outreach to folks who are out in the woods in Sisters Country,” she told The Nugget.
That outreach, conducted on Thursdays, involves making contact with people camping in the forest and making sure that basic needs are being met — needs like water, food, propane for heating and cooking, clothing. Thomas has helped people obtain other needs, such as eyeglasses, as well.
“We can help them to get connected to health insurance, Social Security disability benefits, food stamps,” she said.
Those are items Thomas describes as “mainstream benefits.”
“Navigating that system can be hard for anyone,” she noted.
Thomas said that “the long-term goal is to connect them with housing — if that’s what they want to do.”
Thomas notes that “homelessness” in Sisters, as in most places, is not a single condition.
“It ranges from situational to chronic and everywhere in between,” she said.
Situational homelessness can come from a bad turn of fortune — job loss, loss of a rental situation, a family breakup. Chronic homelessness may be a lifestyle choice, or it may be connected with mental health struggles and/or substance abuse.
Mandee Seeley, a local housing advocate who has experienced what she prefers to call “houselessness” in Sisters, says that virtually all of the many people she knows who are camping in the woods want conventional housing.
“I’m talking about the people who do not want to be in that situation, who are struggling, who are in survival mode and need to find a way out,” she said. “I don’t know personally anyone who wouldn’t take that opportunity (to be connected to housing) if it came about,” she said.
Yet housing is hard to come by and is becoming less affordable by the day in Sisters.
Seeley says that the most recent homeless count indicates that there are 83 homeless people living in the Sisters forest. She believes that it should be possible with Housing and Urban Development (HUD) vouchers and a concerted effort from landlords and developers to house all the people in Sisters who want to be housed.
Asked if there was a concern that even if the immediate need were filled, Sisters would still continue to draw a homeless population, Seeley responded:
“If you build it, they will come? I don’t really subscribe to ‘if you build it, they will come,’ because if Sisters is where they want to be, I don’t have a problem if they come.”
Conflicts between homeless campers, neighboring residents, and people recreating in the woods have occurred. Last March, Deschutes County Sheriff’s Deputies arrested two 19-year-olds in connection with a shooting incident that occurred in the forest outside Sisters on January 17. In that incident, a mid-1990s Chevrolet Tahoe was shot multiple times near a long-term camp in the area of Forest Road 1510 near the 450 spur, approximately five miles west of Sisters. The vehicle was in very close proximity to a tent that was being used for housing.
Local residents, hikers, and horseback riders have said that they have been confronted by homeless people in the forest, and many locals have complained of campsites being trashed — with debris including human waste and drug paraphernalia.
Under national forest regulations, campers cannot exceed 14 days in any one location on public lands. They are supposed to move after those two weeks, and they must move a minimum of five miles to a new site. The rule is hard to enforce, much to the frustration of some local residents. And Seeley says it’s hard to comply with if you’re living and not just recreating in the woods.
“I understand the 14-day rule, but I have to be honest with you, it’s exhausting moving everything you own every two weeks,” she said.
Housing advocates and impacted local residents alike express frustration that, in their perception, “nothing is being done.” Homeless people and their advocates complain of verbal harassment and a threatening atmosphere.
“It used to be just teenagers harassing homeless people,” Seeley said. “Now it’s adults.”
Residents and recreationists sometimes feel threatened, too, and imposed upon by a trashed and unsanitary environment. Some residents have repeatedly documented over-stayed campsites, abandoned vehicles, and trash heaps in the woods.
Besides the shooting investigation, the only recent law-enforcement action associated with homeless campers was an arrest made in mid-April of a homeless man on a warrant for a parole violation on a weapons charge. Reports of a fire that a camper felt was threatening were investigated, but “there was nothing to show that it was criminal,” according to DCSO Sisters Lieutenant Chad Davis.
Davis said it is difficult for law enforcement to act without a timely complaint.
“What it sounds like is that there have been some verbal confrontations between campers and residents and people out recreating,” he said. “I think that’s true.”
“However,” he noted, “we’re not getting calls on a lot of these alleged incidents.”
There appears to be a disconnect and a difference in perception between homeless people who complain that they are harassed, yelled at, their campsites subjected to drive-bys by apparently hostile people, and local law enforcement. Seeley says that the victims of such alleged harassment often don’t call police because they have done so in the past and have been told nothing can be done.
However, Lt. Davis told The Nugget that threats and property damage should be reported immediately so that they can be investigated in a timely fashion. He emphasized that people should avoid confronting others in the woods.
“Let law enforcement do the job,” he said.
The local group Citizens4Community will host an online community discussion of matters related to homelessness and forest camping from 6 to 7:30 p.m. on Monday, May 17.
Ian Reid and John Soules from the Sisters Ranger District will share their perspective, along with Lt. Davis from the Deschutes County Sheriff’s Office. Seeley will also participate.
Attendees will have an opportunity to share their thoughts and ask questions related to the topic. Judge Paul Lipscomb will serve as the evening’s moderator.
To receive an invitation with a Zoom link, RSVP by email to [email protected] Participants will receive the Zoom link a day or two before the event.