The rate of population growth in Sisters, Oregon, has outpaced more urban neighbors such as Bend and Redmond, but there still aren’t structured resources to move people out of homelessness.
The town’s emergency shelter itself doesn’t have a home.
On a recent night, eight guests — all single men — streamed into one of several churches that host the shelter.
“Usually between, what 6 and 6:30, a homemade meal from somebody in town arrives,” explained volunteer Jill Eidsmoe, the point person for that night’s meal.
“This is one of the few times that a huge meal did not come in. So, we had chicken nuggets in the freezer [and] we are just supplementing with things we have,” Eidsmoe said, popping another carton in the microwave.
The shelter is an improvised effort in many ways, focused on one goal: keep people alive when it’s really cold outside. Volunteers started it in 2017 with families and kids in mind, but anyone is welcome so long as they follow the rules inside. This year, the operation has become a flashpoint for how a rural community responds to people on the fringe of its growth.
“They give us a title: homeless. I’m not homeless. I’m an outsider. I have a place to go,” George Discuillo said.
He is 50 and described being unsheltered much of the last 25 years, except for time in prison. His place to go is the shelter and an RV in the woods. On this night, he left the church to go back there. The next morning a shelter volunteer showed up to bring him gas so he could power up the RV’s generator. He’d spent the night without fuel.
“I was really cold last night. I mean, like really cold,” Discuillo said. The temperature that night reached 9 degrees.
The snow on the ground was extra white against the worn yellows of Discuillo’s trailer. Its previous owner recently moved into a new affordable housing complex in Sisters — about 50 units rented through a lottery system that has a long waiting list.
A bitter draft followed Discuillo inside the RV, blowing through cracks in the door frame. The floor was collapsed in several spots. No running water. But to Discuillo, it’s an improvement.
“I honor this. I cherish it, even though it’s a little tin house. But you know, it’s mine,” he said.
He had been living in a tent.
“Thank god for the shelter for the last two years that’s been there for me. I would not be here. I would not be here … [I’d be] probably dead,” Discuillo said.
The previous night, a local community watch group had posted his full name, photo and criminal history to Facebook. Discuillo was convicted of sexual abuse 11 years ago.
Reactions ranged from “He should not exist” to “How do you think Jesus would interact with this person?”
Some commenters expressed alarm Discuillo had been using a shelter next to a school.
Backlash on social media over the shelter’s clientele started before Discuillo was called out. In January, a video was shared around Facebook. It showed a man, who had stayed the night at the church, have a mental health crisis on the street — which rarely happens in a town better known for its folk festival and rustic vacation rentals.
The man stood on the sidewalk, wailing: “Brother, please stop people from hurting me. I need help and I don’t need to be abused. I’m so scared.”
People came out of their homes in Sisters and approached him. Several called 911.
“I want to go back to the state hospital in Salem. I don’t feel good these days. I always feel suicidal. I always feel like running in front of traffic,” the man cried, bleeding.
An ambulance arrived and took him away. What happened to him after that is a mystery.
The incident sparked fear and rumors that the shelter is attracting troubled people to a town without its own police department — let alone services to help such people. But shelter organizers say most of the people they serve are locals. Last month, the steering committee hosted a community meeting to clear the air.
“We were hoping to eliminate a little bit of the fear that’s out there,” said organizer Dawn Cooper.
By many accounts, that meeting was tense. Cooper said the dominant concern she heard was the location of the shelter.
The shelter struggled to find a host for March after churches said they were at capacity with events during the Easter season. Because of city code, they’re the only viable location for the shelter. Then, after record snowfall, two churches came through.
As for next year, leaders in Sisters will again have to approve seasonal operations and decide if the shelter can offer an open door every night of winter or only when temperatures drop below freezing.