As dangerously cold weather gripped Bend this week, a man and his dog stayed warm by a portable propane heater. Their battered old travel trailer had no electricity and no running water. Even so, its thin walls were life-changing.
“I’ve been homeless 12 years,” said the man, who asked to go by his nickname, Critter.
A few years ago, the Central Oregon winter weather put Critter in the hospital with hypothermia for two days, he said. This year, a local aid group gave him the travel trailer, his first real shelter in more than a decade.
“It’s a little bit better,” he said. “The last 11 years I’ve been in a tent.”
Critter lives on Hunnell Road, where the number of houseless campers has swelled in recent years. Next to his trailer, a tent sagged under snow. Inside, someone coughed.
Central Oregon has a list of emergency shelters to help people experiencing homelessness get out of the cold. But many who were hunkered down on Hunnell Road’s frozen pavement Wednesday afternoon weren’t going anywhere. Homeless advocates say the reasons people might not want to go into shelters vary: from transportation barriers, to worries about losing belongings left behind, safety concerns, fears of crowded spaces, or anxiety about being separated from pets.
That’s the primary issue for Critter, who is used to sleeping with his dog, Motah, and doesn’t want to risk putting her in a kennel.
“She would bark all night long,” he said.
The sleek boxer mix leaned on him affectionately during an interview. Critter wore a ball cap with a seal for the U.S. Navy: “I’m a vet,” he said, “Back in ‘71.” What keeps him going now, he said, are the people he cares about in the camp. He described one of his neighbors as being like a daughter. He said he helps younger campers with less experience learn how to survive the elements.
A sense of community also motivates Jon Riggs, who delivers supplies to Hunnell Road. A former drug and alcohol counselor, Riggs now does homeless outreach full time. He co-founded a nonprofit group, The Helpers, which gave Critter the travel trailer.
Riggs can relate to the stresses of being unhoused, because he’s been there himself.
“Support from other people is what raised me out,” he said. That, and medical treatment for a substance abuse disorder, as well as “like 5 other things,” he added.
“I try to do my best to constantly put myself back in those shoes,” he said. “There’s so many factors. Being houseless is usually just one of those factors going on in your life. And it creates the situation where you feel like you have to be in survival mode.”
Survival mode, he said, doesn’t foster personal growth, or community, and extreme weather only adds to the intensity. Riggs worries about people dying. Members of his group discovered two dead bodies during the summer’s record-setting heat wave. This winter, he described an older man in one of the camps running out of propane overnight.
“The next morning he looked like a cold snake. It was so hard to watch. I’m sure it was harder to live,” Riggs said.
The Helpers have been delivering “Little Buddy” heaters, propane, jackets, sleeping bags, tents, backpacks, socks and food to camps in Bend, Redmond, and Madras. The group also collects and repairs donated vehicles to give them away.
On any given night there are over 1,000 people experiencing homelessness in Central Oregon, according to an annual point in time count. In 2021, the count rose 13% over a single year. This data is “always a severe undercount,” a city of Bend report cautions. This winter, there are roughly 120 beds at emergency cold weather shelters in Bend and Redmond.