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Bend's Homeless Shelter Gets Permanent Home

Central Oregon's largest homeless shelter opens its doors to the community Thursday in Bend. Residents are invited to take an inside look at the new Bethlehem Inn.

The shelter actually set up shop in  July - and has housed hundreds of homeless people since then. But, as Central Oregon correspondent Ethan Lindsey reports, the shelter is just now starting to feel like a part of the community.

The Bethlehem Inn says it's holding the open house to build better relations with its neighbors and to allow locals to see the inside the new shelter.

So far, there have been a few public complaints from local businesses. But for the most part the community has accepted the shelter at its new location in a strip-mall motel.

But being a recognized part of the community isn't always a good thing, the staff says.

Established homeless shelters across the country have to deal with what they call 'dumping' - when police and other agencies dump troubled individuals on shelter doorsteps.

For instance, Bethlehem Inn executive director Sandra Mears says when local police discovered a dead man in a canal last week, they found out he had recently been sent to her shelter by regional health authorities.

Sandra Mears: “Actually he was from Crook County and we did attempt to shelter him, we could not complete the intake process with him. He was disoriented and left on his own free will.”

The man's death is still under investigation.

Meers says it's a sad story, but she says the shelter couldn't force him to stay. The intake process itself tests potential residents for drugs and alcohol - those who test positive are not allowed in the shelter.

An estimated 1500 homeless people live in central Oregon, the Homeless Leadership Council said last year. But with a growing number of foreclosures and a slowing economy, some expect that number to increase.

The shelter itself has been transient over the past decade. It began by rotating from church to church. Then, for the past few years, the shelter was located at the county's prison-like work release center.

James Schilling is a model for what the shelter wants to do. He says the new location reminded him of the motels he stayed at when he was younger and traveling with his family.

James Schilling: “I thought it was nice. Nice and warm. They've got beds like we had when we was kids. [LAUGH]”

Schilling moved to Bend two weeks ago to be near his wife, who is confined to a nursing home. But during his admission process, the shelter found out that he has chronic medical problems of his own.

Problems so severe that the shelter's 3-day-a-week health worker isn't enough. But Schilling did qualify for medicare, and so  can now move to a foster care facility next week.

James Schilling: “I'm still waiting for a doctors answer to my questions. Right now, I can eat here, sleep here, waiting for my foster care home.”

Schilling is not typical. Because of the weather and geography of central Oregon, many homeless camp outside during the warm summers. But when the cold kicks up the population moves indoors.

This week, Meers says the weather has increased the demand for rooms - and also changed the shelter community.

Sandra Mears: “It is a bit brisk, so we don't have as many clients outside. They typically congregate in the outside but because of the chilly weather we have people in the day room. And there really is a sense of community here.”

It seems strange, to build a community in your typical roadside motel.

The people milling about outside were actually lounging by the pool. Or what used to be left of the pool. It's been drained for safety reasons.

But as Mears, the executive director, looks out on the parking lot, she says she has big plans. A storage unit, perhaps a full-time medical clinic, and maybe a bigger kitchen.

She says that's one of the things about planning for a growing city like Bend. All sorts of things grow along with it - including the homeless population.

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