News and Opinion from Sisters, Oregon

Housing at forefront of government’s minds

One thing everyone could agree on at last week’s joint Sisters City Council/Deschutes County Board of Commissioners meeting, is that houselessness in Deschutes County is increasing. One of the major factors in that rise is the increasingly high cost of housing.

Colleen Thomas of Deschutes County Health Services, the County’s Houselessness Coordinator, presented to the joint meeting what she and Katy DeVito are doing to meet the houseless population where they are, whether that is in camps out in the forest, in shelters, along city streets, or at the local libraries, where they are able to access the internet. Their goal is to have direct outreach, face-to-face, to provide food benefits, propane, mental health services, case management, and connections to necessary services. With the direct contact, they are better able to assess who is without housing and what their needs are.

Two people to cover all of Deschutes County presents a herculean task that requires more personnel and monetary resources. For now, Thomas and DeVito are visiting homeless camps from Sisters to LaPine as well as managing the isolation motel established to house homeless COVID-19 patients.

In theory, they are supposed to spend one day each week in the Sisters area, where a majority of those experiencing houselessness live within five miles of Sisters, mainly out in the Deschutes National Forest. During three days in September, they attempted to do a survey of all the camps and make some determinations. They were accompanied by John Soules, the USFS law enforcement officer responsible for the Sisters Ranger District. The women reported they didn’t need Soules in order to feel safe during their visits, but rather that they acted as a bridge between the campers and “the uniform.”

They identified 78 different camps. With an average of one-and-a-half people per camp, they estimate there are at least 110 houseless individuals camping around Sisters. Of those camps, 18 were recreational, meaning they were simply visiting the area. In a survey of 19 “resider” camps, those who are houseless and residing in the woods, four indicated that they would access a shelter if one was available. The other 15 said they would not.

Thomas said that many of the campers in Sisters are quite resourceful and a good number are employed. They are able to meet their basic needs and have the support they require. They simply can’t afford the high cost of renting in Sisters. (Availability is another issue; see related story, page 1).

District Ranger Ian Reid, USFS, drew a distinction among the three main groups of people living on the Sisters Ranger District as non-recreational campers on public land. Some are experiencing chronic mental health and/or addiction issues. Others are “boondocking,” meaning they are retired with some means and choosing to live in the woods. The third group are gainfully employed and just can’t find affordable permanent housing.

Reid reported that his office receives six to 12 calls a week complaining about people living in the woods. Some of the issues cited include resource damage, human waste, fire danger, staying over the allowed 14 days in one location, aggressive dogs, and a sense of it being unsafe to go into the woods. He likened the residential camping to someone’s exclusive use of public lands that should be available to everyone.

Lt. Chad Davis of the Deschutes County Sheriff’s Sisters office reported that his officers have frequent contact as the campers travel in and out of the city for work. The officers deal with mental health and addiction crises. Additionally, they hand out information on resources and services such as food banks.

“Having a regular County presence in the area (Thomas and DeVito) is a big deal,” Davis said. “Additional services would be great.”

Thomas and DeVito both stressed the need for more consistency in their outreach and time dedicated to Sisters. Although they are theoretically scheduled for one day a week in Sisters, it is now down to one day every other week, and two weeks in a row can pass when they can’t make it out here.

Where camps are spread out over a wider area, it simply takes more time to do the work.

DeVito pointed out that, generally speaking, besides working and being very resourceful, some campers in the woods are there because they don’t want close contact with other people.

When Thomas and DeVito make contact with someone wanting or needing services, they assess their circumstances and what barriers they are experiencing that keep them from accessing services. They do an intake — “walk the system” with the individual or family — and attempt to decrease the barriers, even arranging for transportation if needed or transporting them themselves. They continue to follow the client to be sure they receive ongoing help and support.

How much can two women do when the need is so great? City Councilor Gary Ross summed it up: “We obviously need increased outreach, and we need more money.”

With houselessness increasing across the county, there is a need to increase the capacity to offer services. DeVito said that so far, she and Thomas have experienced positive responses from the people they are working with. One of their main goals is to establish rapport and build good relationships. Both women reported success stories where they have been able to assist people in meeting their long-term goals.

The discussion drew to a close with comments from the County commissioners. Patty Adair asked, “Can they survive the extreme cold?”

Phil Chang said, “Let’s talk about what we can do. There is the need for more outreach. We need to understand their needs.”

With unaffordable housing being the crux of the issue, Tony DeBone suggested, “We need to ‘build for zero’ (homelessness). We are currently underbuilt.”

With receipt of America Rescue Plan Act funds, Deschutes County will be in a position to provide funding to help with housing issues if they choose. Sisters City Manager Cory Misley informed the County council that the City is considering using funds received to go toward affordable housing, homeless facilities, and childcare. He said the City would probably set aside some funds about which to strategize, and expend them at a later date.

DeBone indicated that the commissioners want to “optimize the funds we have.”


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