For James Cook, the solution to people living without shelter is simple: Open more safe spaces where they can live and have access to resources.
But now Cook is struggling to imagine that happening in Central Oregon, where he’s a longtime advocate for people experiencing homelessness.
“I think we’re in a bad place right now,” Cook said.
He and other key leaders in the region’s homelessness response worry that a public breakdown in the relationship between two local governments — the city of Bend and Deschutes County — will hinder efforts to help thousands of unhoused people, and undermine millions in public funding already spent on the crisis.
This month, the Deschutes County Commission suddenly backed out of plans to contract a provider to oversee a managed camp for homeless residents on city-owned land.
Bend officials had championed the collaboration as a way to move people out of dangerous, unsanctioned areas, and curb growing complaints against those encampments.
When the county disavowed the managed camp, Bend Mayor Melanie Kebler publicly condemned the decision in a meeting with reporters.
“The status quo is not acceptable and our community deserves more than broken promises,” Kebler said Wednesday.
City officials have said they don’t have the resources to manage the camp on their own and needed county support.
But the fallout is unlikely to end with losing roughly 30 safe parking sites. The fractured relationship between Bend’s progressive City Council and Deschutes County’s Republican-led County Commission could jeopardize broader efforts to expand shelter spaces for years to come.
Homelessness has become a focal point issue for many Oregonians. In January, Democratic Gov. Tina Kotek announced plans for a multimillion-dollar package to tackle the problem statewide.
And while the number of people living unhoused in Central Oregon has exploded in recent years, interviews with the region’s elected officials show a fundamental disagreement about what role they play in addressing the crisis — and who’s to blame for its failures.
Deschutes County Commissioners Tony DeBone and Patti Adair, both Republicans, carried the vote to scrap the managed camp. DeBone told OPB disagreements between the county and Bend about homelessness date as far back as 2007 and that he feels that there’s a pattern of the city asking them for help.
He said the commission received little details about what the managed camp project entailed before being asked to approve it. In a meeting, they had been told it could be as many as 30 campsites on a one-acre parcel in southern Bend.
“We don’t know enough about this, so we’re not ready to step up,” DeBone said. “We don’t have authority for land use or public safety in the city, so we’re going in with one hand behind our back.”
But he also said the City Council’s previous public comments about the commission — claims that the county has failed to do its job addressing the homeless crisis — rubbed him the wrong way.
“For them to just say, we’re not doing our job, it’s kind of offensive,” he said. “That’s not relationship building, that’s fence building.”
Bend City Councilor Anthony Broadman said the county’s last-minute reversal did not come as a surprise.
“We’ve led them to water but we apparently can’t make them drink,” Broadman said. “It’s more of the same status quo that we’ve seen… over the last decade.”
At some point this year, Central Oregon cities are expected to lead three major sweeps of homeless encampments, one on Hunnell Road in Bend and two in Redmond. Bend had previously delayed clearing Hunnell Road until the managed camp opened.
With that option now off the table, the future is murkier than ever for the nearly 100 people living in tents and RVs on Hunnell, one of the largest urban encampments in the region.
Other shelter projects could suffer as well. The city has poured millions into opening new shelter spaces, such as converted motels and various safe parking sites.
But the federal American Rescue Plan Act dollars that are funding these projects are running low. Broadman said without an injection of cash from the county or state, the projects could fail just as they’re getting underway.
“We will not be able to continue to fund these measures moving forward without additional support,” he said.
West of the Cascades, partnerships between government agencies have been vital to addressing homelessness, said Denis Theriault, deputy communications director for Multnomah County.
It’s not perfect, he said, but Portland and the county’s Joint Office of Homeless Services has been effective in providing more opportunities for shelter.
“There are hard conversations between partners who are doing work together, but those things have not gotten in the way of getting programs open,” Theriault said.
That history of cooperation between governments hasn’t been replicated in Deschutes County. That’s in spite of the creation of the Coordinated Houseless Response Office, which was specifically designed to address that gap.
Caught between dysfunctional agencies in Deschutes County are the service providers and advocates working with the thousands of unhoused residents in Central Oregon, James Cook said.
The disagreements between Deschutes County and Bend are nothing new. Such differences have been a problem throughout the region, frequently hampering efforts to create new shelter, he said.
“You end up with people pointing their fingers at each other as to who’s responsible, and that’s a problem,” Cook said.
He was concerned that poor planning made it easier for the city-county managed camp plan to fall apart.
“When there started to be pushback, there was really no way for service providers or anyone else to defend the plan, because there really was no plan at the time,” Cook said.
“Rather than moving forward, we’ve taken another step backwards in addressing homelessness in Central Oregon.”