It’s been four months since the July 1 deadline for Oregon cities to establish codes on where and when people experiencing homelessness can camp outside. We’ll hear from two low-barrier shelters on what has changed in their communities since then. Evan Hendrix is the director of navigation services at Shepherd’s House Ministries in Bend. Terry McDonald is the executive director of St. Vincent de Paul of Lane County. They both join us to share more on what demand has been like for their services and how these codes are affecting people experiencing homelessness.
Note: This transcript was computer generated and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: From the Gert Boyle Studio at OPB, this is Think Out Loud. I’m Dave Miller. It’s been four months since the July deadline for Oregon cities to establish codes on where and when people experiencing homelessness can camp outside. We thought it was a good time to check in to see how these rules are playing out. Evan Hendrix is a director of navigation services at Lighthouse Navigation Center in Bend. Terry McDonald is the executive director of St. Vincent de Paul of Lane County. They both run low barrier shelters, meaning among other things, they don’t have sobriety mandates. We talked earlier this week.
I started by asking Terry to describe the rules that Eugene has adopted.
Terry McDonald: Well, in the summer, of course, the city council adopted a series of measures that would prohibit camping in certain parts of Eugene. And that has been in force ever since about July 1st. And they’re primarily areas in the downtown core, but also along the riverfront.
Miller: Has enforcement changed significantly since those new rules went into effect?
McDonald: Well, enforcement has completely changed where many of the unhoused people that we used to see along the river and along certain corridors in downtown Eugene. Those have been of course cleared out, and they continue to be cleared out when a camper tries to get into those areas, they’re very quickly told to move on at that point.
Miller: And where do they go in general?
McDonald: That’s a good question. To other places in the Eugene/Springfield area, not necessarily ones that are in those specialized corridors like the downtown core or the riverfront. But they still pop up all throughout the community.
Miller: Are more people seeking services? The hope in these rules all across the state on the part of state lawmakers is that more people will be encouraged or forced to seek shelter or to get into treatment or to get into some kind of transitional housing. To what extent is that happening?
McDonald: It’s not. The populations that are more in this unhoused or unorganized camp areas that have been kind of moved out, is a population that really does not want to participate in a rule-bound system. So if you think of even a low barrier shelter, there are certain rules that we will enforce, you can’t openly be violent to one another and so forth. And those rules are just too much for some people. So even though there has been a change in where people stay, it has not brought more people into our service areas.
Miller: Evan Hendrix, what about in Bend? Can you explain or remind us the time and place rules that Bend adopted back on March 1st, I think it was?
Evan Hendrix: Yeah, it sounds very similar to the rules adopted by the city of Eugene that Terry described. In general, folks are engaged regularly by code enforcement officers working on behalf of the city to remind them regarding the camping code. And the response from the unhoused community in our region has generally been a willingness to move along every couple of days and become much more mobile and fluid in their movements. Or they’ve moved to the perimeter of the city in a couple of rural areas on the north and south end of town.
Miller: So numerically it seems it hasn’t really changed the prevalence of outdoor homelessness, it’s just moved it more to the periphery.
Hendrix: Yeah, which in all honesty, I believe was generally the intent for these codes. It wasn’t really designed to be necessarily beneficial to the unhoused community. I think it was more in response to the citizens not knowing how to respond to unhoused folks living in and amongst businesses and housing development areas. And so the city responded accordingly.
I think the one benefit that we’ve seen so far is that because we do have a low barrier navigation center, we’ve seen roughly 1,700 individuals over the course of the last year access services on site. Whereas, a year and a half ago before this facility existed, those folks weren’t able to access services to the extent that they are today.
Miller: If I’m listening correctly and thinking back to what we just heard from Terry, it seems like that is more attributable to the creation of this navigation center, as opposed to a result of stepped up inner Bend enforcement.
Hendrix: Absolutely. I think it would have been really difficult to enforce a camping code or instigate a camping code without the creation of a navigation center, and without continued work to try to identify and create housing solutions for these individuals.
Miller: What does happen at the navigation center in Bend?
Hendrix: Gosh, a great number of things. We try to meet people where they’re at upon arrival. Usually they come in in some form of crisis, and our first response is to try to validate, understand, and believe their story. And then we quickly follow that up with trying to meet basic needs. And so we provide meals, we provide water, we provide fresh change of clothing. We have a shower on site, and then a shower truck visits every Monday as well to be able to support some outside folks. And then beyond that, we start moving into trying to connect people with providers. Anything from behavioral health to physical health, substance use challenges. We work with a local veterans organization to support veterans. And then we’ve got a team of case managers and certified alcohol and drug counselors on site that work with folks on an individual basis toward the stated objectives that they’ve identified.
Miller: Terry, where are you right now in terms of shelter capacity?
McDonald: We are where we have been for the last several years, we’re at 100% capacity. And we have a waiting list of generally between 600 and 1,000.
Miller: I should say that according to the most recent point in time count, the total number of people experiencing homelessness in Lane County increased by 72% in the last five years, and in Central Oregon - Deschutes, Jefferson, and Crook counties - there was a 28% increase in their count, just from 2022 to 2023.
So Terry, back to you. In terms of being at capacity with a huge waiting list, I assume then that that is a different population than the one you were mentioning earlier who is resistant to services.
McDonald: That’s correct. So what we’re seeing is a growth in a different homeless population that we’ve never actually seen until about five years ago, and that’s a much more senior population. It used to be that the number of homeless women that we had on our various programs was about 10% to 13%. It’s now about 50%. And much of that population is over the age of 50. These are often individuals that are [on] fixed incomes, but just not enough money to the cost of living in this area, which has gone up very rapidly in the last decade. And so they end up being either homeless or else in and out of housing, and then finally into the shelter programs.
Miller: Evan, have you seen a similar increase in different populations that are either on the verge of homelessness or experiencing homelessness?
Hendrix: Yeah, I think it’s grown significantly. The margins that used to exist where people would kind of operate right on the threshold of being houseless, much of those were dissolved through the COVID pandemic as resources that folks relied upon very quickly disappeared. And the result unfortunately was a lot of people transitioning into a houseless reality without the services and the support required to be able to easily get back into housing.
Miller: Evan, first, but I’d love to hear both of you on this. The city of Grants Pass has asked the US Supreme Court to consider looking at a case involving how much authority a city has to regulate homelessness. And cities up and down the west coast, and some states as well, have said “yes, please do this.” The League of Oregon Cities has signed on. They basically want to have more leeway to clear encampments, even if they don’t have enough shelter beds. This is all connected to an appeals court ruling from Boise a couple of years ago.
If that were to happen, if the Supreme Court after a lot of legal wrangling were to give cities more authority to do that than they currently have, what impact do you think that would have on your community?
Hendrix: Well, I think it would be devastating.
McDonald: In the case of Lane County, you would return to the situation that we saw 20 years ago, which was the unhoused instead of being visible would go back to being invisible. So hiding rather than being visible out where they are today. And that’s the way the unhoused were treated 20 years ago, it was considered an illegal activity and you didn’t stop anywhere and, and set up a tent, you hid yourself. We’d just returned back to that period.
Miller: Evan, you said it would be devastating. What do you mean?
Hendrix: These individuals, in my experience, are not choosing this lifestyle. And the general response from the public seems to be we would just rather not have to see it or witness the folks that are in this situation, which ultimately is just pushing this reality further down the road. I would much rather see us shift from trying to eliminate the visibility of these folks by just moving them around, to really creating the necessary resources and support these folks need in order to move towards health and stability, which as we’re seeing, is we need significant gains in regards to mental health support and substance use, both of which are often a by product of living a houseless reality.
Miller: And Terry, what about you? What do you think would make the biggest difference right now? Obviously, these are issues that leaders all across the state at the local, regional and the state levels are all grappling with. It’s not like there aren’t a ton of conversations. What do you think is not being paid enough attention to, is not getting enough attention?
McDonald: Well, the governor actually has addressed this pretty directly early on in her tenure. And that is that there’s a dearth of affordable housing. There was a recent survey done in California indicating that Oregon and California basically, for every 100 human beings that qualify for affordable housing, only about 23 or 24 have the availability of affordable housing. When you couple that with the very low vacancy rates in our communities, whether it’s in Bend or almost anywhere in Oregon, where vacancy rates in just market housing is at less than 1%, you’ve bred yourself a disaster. So you can offer lots of treatments and you can do lots of interventions which are all good. And you can increase and buffer up the support services for people. But at the end of the day, you have to have places where they can live a permanent life. Whether it’s the tiny house movement or modular or mobile homes or where it’s a section 42 housing units or any other affordable housing solutions, number one, you have to be able to build more and you got to build them a lot faster than we are now, and they have to be dispersed throughout the state.
Miller: Terry McDonald and Evan Hendrix, thanks very much.
McDonald: It’s a pleasure.
Hendrix: You’re welcome.
Miller: Evan Hendrix is the director of navigation services at Lighthouse Navigation Center in Bend. Terry McDonald is the executive director of St. Vincent de Paul of Lane County.
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