Last week, a homeless man named David Savory froze to death in the middle of Bend. The night he died, the temperature was around 33 degrees. He was on the waitlist for shelters in the area, but at the time there were no overnight warming shelters anywhere in the city.
That changed last weekend. Morgan Schmidt, a pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Bend, organized an emergency shelter at her church. Another cold-weather shelter is slated to open on Monday.
But homeless advocates in Bend say that the lack of warming shelters and low-barrier housing continues to be a problem. The are high-barrier shelters in the area have stringent rules and don’t accept people who are under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
“Think Out Loud” host Dave Miller recently spoke with two advocates in Bend: Schmidt, who organized the emergency shelter at the First Presbyterian Church, and Stacey Witte, the executive director of REACH.
Excerpts of their conversation are below:
Dave Miller: Morgan Schmidt, the shelter that just opened up on Saturday night, … how were you able to open it so quickly?
Morgan Schmidt: Only because of the collaboration of so many agencies and community leaders and volunteers in our community. … It’s just truly been a team effort. We were on a phone call Friday afternoon at about 3 o’clock and were able to open by Saturday at 6 [p.m.] to accept our first guest.
Miller: Would that have happened if it hadn’t been for David Savory’s death?
Schmidt: I’d like to think so. Obviously, that’s just such a tragedy for our community and has certainly energized a lot of folks around being more aware of this as an issue in our county. You’ll hear a lot of folks say, “Why don’t people just go to shelters?” And I think there’s not a lot of understanding about how limited those options are in Bend and Deschutes County.
Miller: Stacey Witte, I understand why there wouldn’t be a warming shelter in the middle of summer. ... But why hasn’t there been one by the early fall in Bend when it can regularly get very cold?
Stacey Witte: I think what we’re finding in our community is the need for a low-barrier shelter. We currently do not have a year-round [low-barrier] shelter in Bend. And quite honestly, it’s not just a winter issue. … A place to get water, to rest and rejuvenate, is a year-round issue for those experiencing homelessness. So a low-barrier shelter is very needed. … Maybe the only good thing out of COVID is that community members, social service agencies, the city and county have done an amazing job communicating and collaborating. COVID brought to light some of the challenges that have been existing for years in this population.
Miller: Can you remind us what this term of art in the homeless service community means: a low-barrier shelter as compared to a high-barrier one, which, I understand there are some of those in Bend?
Witte: Yes, we have some wonderful high-barrier shelters. Bethlehem and Shepherd’s House provide wonderful shelter for people. But those that are chronically homeless, that are dailly in crisis, that need a safe, warm place without needing to jump through a lot of hoops. … All of those community members deserve a safe, warm place to be or a safe, cool place, and also a place that they’re going to be treated with respect and dignity to take care of their daily living activities.
Miller: So what do you see as the reasons why this kind of shelter has been such a challenge, to create not just on a permanent basis, but even on a seasonal one?
Witte: I think the funding is not an issue. There is funding. I think we have the support of the city and county social service agencies. … Finding a location has been a challenge. And every year we seem to be scrambling all year to find a location. And at the 11th hour we come up with something. We’d like to not be doing that so we could be putting effort into other things. NIMBY, Not In My Back Yard, is a huge issue. People in Bend, I think, are a very giving, caring community who want to help and support. But we do bump up against, “Where is that location?” So that we can honor all populations, it’s doable, but it’s going to take some effort.
Miller: Morgan Schmidt, how many people have showed up on a nightly basis since you opened your doors on Saturday?
Schmidt: I think Saturday night the word was still spreading, so we weren’t quite at capacity, I think we had 26 or 27 guests that night. … But every night since, we have been full up. Our original capacity was 35 guests. And anybody beyond that, we tried to set up very near to the church, so they could still come in and use the bathroom and have a hot meal or warm up if they needed to. We have them as much cold-weather gear as we could, from donations from the community.
Last night, we had a really special experience of reaching that capacity when we still had 11 folks outside, on a night when it reached that same 33 degree freezing temperature that our community lost David in last week. [It was] obviously heartbreaking to even consider turning those folks away. So we brought them in and had them warming up in our sanctuary and brought them food.
And through a series of incredible coincidences, the fire marshal happened to text me, and I asked her if there was any way we could increase our capacity. And she said, “Yeah, if you could get me exact square footage for the spaces that you’re using.” And she came back after she got that information, saying we could have exactly 11 more spots.
So last night we were able to have 46, and take care of everybody that came to the shelter that needed to get warm.
Miller: But if it hadn’t been for that special dispensation and being able to text her so quickly, what other options would you have had just last night?
Schmidt: The bottom line is that there’s not enough. There’s not enough space that we have to offer. And there’s really not great options for those folks. Our best idea right now is just to make them as comfortable as we can and allow them to stay nearby and use the church amenities, whether they want to park nearby or stay kind of close to the building … We’re trying really hard to get creative about ways that people can shelter safely and stay warm. But we currently just simply don’t have options for a lot of these folks.
Miller: Stacey Witte, what else do you want to see from the city or the county to improve access to housing or homeless services?
Witte: I’d like to see, and I think we’re getting it now, continued collaboration and communication with all the agencies. I think the city and county are really seeing clearly the need in our homeless community for services.
So we need to make sure that communication and collaboration continues, and we need to identify locations that we can have one or more shelters scattered through the Bend area to provide these kinds of services for people. Because taking someone to jail or the hospital or handing him a tent shouldn’t be our only option.
Miller: There was a Bend City Council meeting that I think touched on some of these issues last night. My understanding is that you took part in that? What stood out to you there?
Schmidt: Honestly, I wasn’t able to be at the council meeting Wednesday night. I was in the midst of shelter logistics and getting our guests settled. My understanding, though, is that I hear the Bend community came out in force. … We’re trying to let our providers do the amazing work they’re doing and the advocacy work. And my job is really just to start translating that to the general community to say, “How are we having conversations around prioritizing this? What does it look like to have a dream that, in Bend, housing is a human right?” Housing is a matter of human dignity. It’s not something we’re willing to negotiate about.
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