A temporary warming shelter opened in Bend this month, creating an option for men, women and families experiencing homelessness to get out of the freezing Central Oregon temperatures at night.

The new low-barrier shelter offers 70 beds inside a former thrift store, located near public transit and commercial areas. On its first night of operation, 56 people showed up, mostly men, according to Shepherd’s House Ministries Development Director Dave Notari.

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“It remains to be seen if we’ll be able to make this go year-round. That’s our hope, but really it is going to require a land purchase, and a building purchase,” Notari said. “This a good step in the right direction to see something more permanent happen.”

The City of Bend funded Shepherd’s House operation of the shelter in a rented space through $600,000 of Community Development Block Grant funding. The funding comes as part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act.

The funding covers six months of winter shelter operations, Notari said, citing the high cost of overnight staffing, and of precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

“One of the biggest challenges for homeless people is isolation and a lack of meaningful connection. People learn to trust other people and to heal from what they’re going through when they’re connected deeply with other people,” Notari said.

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A temporary warming shelter opened in Bend on Nov. 23, 2020.

A temporary warming shelter opened in Bend on Nov. 23, 2020.

Courtesy of Shepherd's House Ministries

That, along with practical considerations such as transit, food and medical providers, are why Shepherd’s House bases services in central areas of Bend, Notari said.

Meanwhile, city leaders are eyeing Juniper Ridge, a publicly owned site on the northeastern fringe of town, as a place to station more services and transitional housing. The area is currently used for crushing rocks, and is located far from public transit, grocery stores and other commerce.

“There are nearly 1,000 people who are experiencing homelessness in Central Oregon on any given night. This number includes families with children and youth who do not live with an adult,” the website for the city’s newly formed Emergency Homelessness Task Force states.

Previous emergency warming shelters in Bend were improvised, limited to men, or hosted by law enforcement agencies, Notari said. The new facility opens just weeks after a man died of exposure.

In the frigid nights leading up the new shelter opening, Bend First Presbyterian Church filled the need with an ad hoc effort led by Pastor Morgan Schmidt. The church opened its doors nightly to a maximum of 35 people. Volunteers were sometimes forced to turn people away due to fire and COVID-19 restrictions.

“It doesn’t have to be this way. There can be options year-round that are low barrier,” Schmidt said in a recent social media video, filmed in a church sanctuary filled with tents.

“These people are beautiful, and have become dear friends,” she said as her voice snagged with emotion. “I just want you to think about, what is the work of love that is yours to do as we move forward?”

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A homeless man and double leg amputee has died in Bend, Oregon, after temperatures dipped below freezing this week. Bend, which often sees heavy snow in the winter, doesn’t have a permanent warming shelter and lacks a year-round low-barrier homeless shelter.