News and Opinion from Sisters, Oregon

County Behavioral Health expands services for ‘forest dwellers’

“My goal is basically to die out here,” a man living in the forest outside Sisters told David Fox, the new Deschutes County case manager working with people who are experiencing houselessness in Sisters and La Pine, the first time they met.

Because of Fox’s continuing efforts to engage the man in conversation, eventually establishing a relationship with him, they are now working together on hopes and goals for the future. They meet once a week in Fox’s office in the Deschutes County school-based health clinic next to Sisters High School. Fox is helping the man get new identification and a dental appointment, basics that are necessary yet difficult to access when one is feeling defeated, with no resources and no support.

Fox sees his position as one of “being available and inspiring hope in every conversation… I see myself as a bridge between them and where they want to go next. When I can understand what they want and need, I can help them identify the path to their goals. They can network with service providers when I provide them with information on hours, forms, and available resources. I can also get them wait-listed for housing.”

Over the past two years, and currently, Fox noted that Deschutes County has made a lot of changes and added more resources to address the issue of houselessness. They have established the Homeless Outreach Services Team (HOST) made up of five team members. Colleen Thomas, homeless team supervisor, and Katie De Vito, homeless outreach coordinator, used to be the only two staff members at Deschutes County Behavioral Health to cover all of Deschutes County.

With American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding received by the County, three new positions have been created. Besides Fox’s case manager and outreach position in Sisters and La Pine, Jeromy Willend is a peer support specialist who works throughout the county as “boots on the ground,” providing practical support like delivering food, providing rides, and sharing his own lived experience with those needing assistance. He also identifies new camps. The third new position is a case manager in Redmond. Besides serving as the outreach coordinator, DeVito also works with people experiencing homelessness and persistent severe mental illness.

The entire HOST team works collaboratively with numerous local agencies and service providers. Fox has spent the last few months going out into the forest surrounding Sisters with Jeremy Fields, special forest products officer for the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), who has spent time in the woods getting to know the people living there.

Last week, 20 Forest Service employees, one Forest Service volunteer, a Deschutes corrections crew, and the HOST team took part in an organized outreach and cleanup event coordinated by the Sisters Ranger District. Overall, eight sites were cleared and cleaned, and a 30-yard dumpster was filled.

Fox also collaborates with the Family Access Network (FAN), Habitat for Humanity, the Family Kitchen, the Deschutes County Sheriff’s Office, and individual local residents.

“It has been exciting to make these connections and be able to network for the benefit of the people with whom I work,” said Fox.

Fox confirmed what others have said in the past: People who work in Sisters often are forced to live in the woods due to the lack of affordable housing and high rental prices given a minimum wage job.

Measure 110, which decriminalized possession of a small quantity of illicit drugs, has helped Fox and others get people to the Stabilization Center and into behavioral health treatment, where they can pursue sobriety and develop healthy life skills.

“With more money and more staff, the County is able to tackle the issue of houselessness from lots of different directions, providing support, assistance, and motivation in different ways,” explained Fox. “Being there, being available is so important to people who need a positive support system and positive connections.”

Thomas said the HOST team’s role is to “build support with compassion, using a person-centered approach.” They also can provide a “warm hand off,” connecting clients with other resources in the community. Their primary focus is on people experiencing houselessness and mental health issues.

Fox is generally in Sisters on Tuesday and Wednesday, La Pine Monday and Friday, and Thursday is a flex day wherever he is needed.

The Mobile Crisis Assessment Team (MCAT) provides crisis intervention services out in the community 24/7, 365 days a year. The MCAT responds when called by various community partners, including law enforcement, to assess individuals in the community who are experiencing a mental health crisis. To access the crisis line call 541-322-7500, ext. 9.


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