News and Opinion from Sisters, Oregon

Cold weather concerns grow for homeless

It's not yet December and there have already been more than a dozen nights of sub-freezing temperatures. A handful of nights dropped into the teens.

Failing to obtain approval of its application to operate an emergency shelter, the Sisters Cold Weather Shelter (SCWS) is redirecting its resources and partnering with other community groups and volunteers to prevent those living in the forest or their vehicles from injury or death.

They are at the center of a confederation of homeless advocates or agencies including Family Access Network (FAN), Deschutes County, the Forest Service, Deschutes County Sheriff's Office, the Sisters Community Leadership Initiative, and the Homeless Leadership Coalition.

David Fox works for Deschutes County Behavioral Health as a case manager for houseless outreach. He spends two days each week in Sisters and two in LaPine. He is still impacted from the hypothermia deaths last year of two individuals near living in the forest near La Pine.

Fox told The Nugget, "I will not be surprised if we have more deaths, including in Sisters, as winter progresses."

Many recall the death in 2016 of Edward Carlton Fones, 39, found dead in his car from hypothermia on Rail Way near McDonald's. The SCWS had intended to name its proposed shelter in honor of Fones.

Fox and others in the support network get information about the homeless and their encampments from regular visits and patrols; in some cases collecting bagged trash, and in others delivering water, firewood, or buddy heaters (portable devices that can put out as much as 9,000 BTUs).

And there is intelligence from Forest Service staff and sheriff's deputies who are in regular contact with many if not most of the homeless. However, by their nature, the homeless are often transient, and some who are in Sisters for shorter periods of time avoid being located or identified.

The Forest Service gets calls from area citizens reporting campfires, particularly those near FS Road 100 (Spur Road) or within sight of North Pine Street. Campfires, properly laid, are legal and are only banned during fire season.

Brian Owens, homeless in Sisters for almost three years, has his camp about 50 feet off the Spur Road. He burns wood to warm himself and his dog, Dude, and for cooking. As an Army veteran, he thinks his training and gear will enable him to survive the harshest of temperatures.

His worst night was -4 degrees.

"It's all about the layering," Owens said. On the worst nights he crawls inside three nested sleeping bags. "Dude and I keep each other warm," he said.

Owens was being visited by his friend Alexander Davlin, whose camp is out of town in the Three Creek area. He comes to town for supplies and to check on Brian.

"It's safer and a lot calmer where I live," Davlin explained. "Too many tweakers (meth users) around here."

He and Owens are substance free.

Both talk about the layers of homelessness in Sisters.

Fox said, "At the core of homelessness is poverty. It's too easy for people to blame it all on drugs."

The majority of Sisters' homeless have some sort of job. Owens survives as he does by recycling cans and bottles.

Assistance comes in all forms. Families with children are most apt to get help from FAN. The SCWS is often on the front lines with heaters. Sisters Community Leadership Initiative is the point team for fresh water and trash disposal bagged by the homeless campers. Anonymous citizens supply firewood, often not identifying their good works for fear of being thought of as enablers.

The SCWS has arranged transfer of ownership of some RVs and campers from local individuals and businesses to those who have enough ability to maintain them. One such gift went to a couple expecting a child January 25.

Recently a man in his 60s was perceived to be at risk for hypothermia and the easiest solution was for him to be given a bus ticket to a warmer, safer climate. He was the second this month.

In the past, Sisters churches would shelter the homeless when temperatures hit a certain mark. The two largest churches in the group have since reconfigured their

space used by the homeless, making it no longer useable for sheltering.

Owens - and Davin, who has a cat named Captain - would be ineligible for admission to most shelters as animals are not permitted.

The City of Sisters is trying to remain abreast of the risks and efforts.

Jordan Wheeler, city manager, said, "We continue to stay connected with and support the community partners that work with the unhoused population around our city, such as the Community Leadership Initiative. We've had internal conversations and meetings about contingencies this winter during severe weather, but nothing (definitive) to report on that front."


Reader Comments(1)

York writes:

A very accurate and informed story but Mr. Bartlett. Unfortunately our city leaders are significantly behind in proactively providing solutions or truly facilitating cooperation for this problem that will not go away anytime soon.

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