Debate over winter camping site continues

 

Last updated 12/6/2022 at Noon



Despite no proposal brought to the City for winter camping at Creekside Campground, and a number of barriers to using the campground for such purposes, emails and rumors have continued to circulate regarding use of the facility for a winter camp for homeless people.

Deschutes County Commissioner Phil Chang thinks the spot would make a good location for “safe parking,” a program in place in other areas of the county. He acknowledged, however, that the park is a City of Sisters facility and decisions about it belong to the Sisters City Council.

In an email to a concerned citizen, Chang explained what a “safe parking” site is:

“A Safe Parking site is not a homeless encampment.

It is a place where a person or family whose current home is an RV, van, or trailer, is allowed to park for a fixed period of time while they work toward getting into permanent housing.

Safe Parking programs are run by faith-based, nonprofit, or public agencies who screen candidates, establish rules and structure for safe parking sites, provide case management and support services to Safe Parking participants, and are on call to manage any complaints or concerns.

Safe Parking is intended for people experiencing houselessness who are prepared to transition to permanent housing but just need a bit of stability and support to complete that process.”

Chang explained to The Nugget about how he became involved in this issue.

Following the Citizens4Community forum on houselessness, where the possibility of using Creekside Campground in the winter for houseless camping was raised, Chang said, “multiple Sisters residents who attended the forum contacted me to share what had been discussed, including a suggestion from a forum attendee that Creekside Campground be used as shelter or transitional housing.

I was told that forum attendees were encouraged to send in proposals about this concept.

I shared with these Sisters residents that the idea had been raised before, that I thought Creekside Campground had a lot of advantages as a site to host shelter or transitional housing, and it was up to the City since they own and operate the park.”

When asked why he was involving himself in a City issue, he responded, “Creekside Park is a City property. But solving homelessness is both a County and City responsibility. So, providing space within Sisters is a County issue. The people of Sisters – both within and outside of the Urban Growth Boundary – are my constituents, who elected me to work on the major challenges facing our community. I have heard from many Sisters residents (my constituents) about their concerns about homelessness.”

Chang also received emails from two Sisters residents, and one person who said they spent a lot of time in Sisters, who said they were opposed to the idea. Chang sent an email to them reiterating that it was up to the City, but he thought if any kind of homeless service facility was established during the winter months at Creekside Park that Safe Parking would probably be the best fit. He forwarded his response to the Sisters City Council as well.

Chang said, “Having watched the Safe Parking program roll out in both Bend and Redmond, I think that this might be the best fit for an outdoor shelter or transitional housing concept at Creekside Park and that Safe Parking could work very well in this location.”

In an email exchange, a Sisters citizen told Chang she had visited the sites in Redmond and did not think Creekside Campground was the place for this. She pointed out that Creekside Park is the entrance/exit to Sisters and is “revered and used by the community.”

In his email to The Nugget, Chang contended Sisters has “the highest concentration/density of homelessness in all of Deschutes County. People who say that these 100-plus people are not Sisters residents because they live just on the other side of the city limits are using an arbitrary dotted line to deny that people who work in Sisters businesses and send their kids to Sisters schools are part of the Sisters community. Homelessness is very much a City of Sisters problem.”

In another email, he warned that the “City has done very little to address the situation thus far. Perhaps that is actually why Sisters has one of the highest concentrations of homelessness in the entire Central Oregon region. Programs like Safe Parking are needed whether people support locations like Creekside Park or other locations. If the Sisters community does not work to set up Safe Parking or other programs to help people exit homelessness, the situation will only get worse.”

On the subject of financial assistance from the County to address houselessness in Sisters, Chang responded, “When the County had $38 million of American Rescue Plan funding to invest in COVID response and community recovery, we received requests from both homeless service providers in Sisters and from the City for those funds.

Since the City did not support any of the requests from homeless service providers at the time, the only requests we ended up funding were from the City.

We reserved $500,000 for an affordable housing project (location TBD) in the city that the City would lead the development of and we also invested several hundred thousand to expand the Homeless Outreach Team within the County Behavioral Health division to be able to engage more deeply with people experiencing homelessness in the Sisters area.

I would have voted to fund shelter or transitional housing proposals in Sisters out of the ARPA funds if the City and homeless service providers had been able to reach agreement.”

When asked if he had been in communication with anyone at the City, he responded, “When I responded to the Sisters residents opposed to the idea of using Creekside Campground for shelter or transitional housing, I forwarded my response to the Sisters City Council. Mayor Preedin had cc’d me in his responses to these residents, so I thought I would return the courtesy. So yes, I have shared my thoughts with the Sisters City Council, and have heard the mayor’s thoughts on this issue. We have not had any interactive discussions on this topic for a year.”

At last week’s City Council meeting, Mayor Michael Preedin closed the meeting saying that the City is seriously working on the houselessness issue. They have been working for a long time on being able to provide truly affordable housing and have earmarked funds for that. A new hire by the County has been made, to work with David Fox of the County’s Behavioral Health Services visiting members of the houseless community in the forest and connecting them to services.

“We are always talking with people about it. We are having meetings with the people from the Cold Weather Shelter and the Community Leadership Team,” he added. “I won’t allow others to put their stamp on what we’re doing.”

Chang told The Nugget, “I want to point out that shelters across Deschutes County are filled to capacity these last few weeks as cold, wet weather is making living and sleeping unsheltered outside very dangerous for people.

It’s my understanding the group that has run the winter warming shelter in Sisters in the past does not have a site or an operation this year.

I’m concerned that this dangerous situation is, in part, the result of the strain between homeless service providers and City leadership last year.

Not having a winter warming shelter in a community makes the risk of people freezing to death very real.

I don’t think anyone in Sisters wants this.

But this could be the ‘worst case scenario’ that results from inaction and not being able to find community agreement on a shared path forward.”

 

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