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A Place to Call Home ▶ [With Video] 

Communal living project for veterans could serve as a model for solving the homeless crisis

Bend's newest neighborhood won't have a homeowners' association or a lengthy list of bylaws. There won't be any open houses or bidding wars among prospective homebuyers. What it will have is a collection of individuals who have served their country but have since fallen on challenging times. 

Central Oregon Veterans Village is a chance for them to make a fresh start while living in a community of individuals who are facing similar challenges. With any luck, their stay will be uneventful and short-lived as they transition into stable long-term housing, something that some of the residents haven't had since they left their service careers. 

Above is a bird's eye view of what the Central Oregon Veterans Village will look like when completed. - COURTESY CENTRAL OREGON VETERANS VILLAGE
  • Courtesy Central Oregon Veterans Village
  • Above is a bird's eye view of what the Central Oregon Veterans Village will look like when completed.

Located near the Deschutes County public safety campus, which includes the sheriff's offices and county jail, the Veterans Village will feature 15 one-room homes, akin to the popular tiny homes that have cropped up around the Northwest. The project is the brainchild of the Bend Heroes Foundation, a nonprofit that previously focused on initiatives that paid tribute to local veterans, including the memorial near Newport Bridge. 

Foundation President Erik Tobiason said the idea of a housing project for homeless vets came about after the Heroes Foundation was concluding its Honor Flight program. That initiative funded and organized trips to Washington, D.C., for World War II veterans to visit the then-recently completed World War II memorial. As the foundation reached the end of the list of eligible veterans in the region, it found itself at a crossroads, Tobiason said.

What else could we do to honor and support veterans, they wondered. 

A new path

The Heroes Foundation considered providing mental health support for vets experiencing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and depression, but initial forays revealed that other agencies were better equipped for such a mission. It went back to the drawing board and emerged with the outline of a plan for a transitional housing project that would become Veterans Village. 

Bend Heroes Foundation President Erik Tibiason stands in front of one of the tiny homes under construction. - DARRIS HURST
  • Darris Hurst
  • Bend Heroes Foundation President Erik Tibiason stands in front of one of the tiny homes under construction.

Two years later—in January—Tobiason's group, in partnership with the Central Oregon Veterans Outreach, broke ground. The Veterans Village is expected to welcome its first residents in early March with full occupancy by April, Tobiason said. 

"We got up the learning curve fairly quickly," Tobiason said. "Two years ago we didn't know much about the issue of homelessness." 

Since then it's been a rapid-fire education that included navigating the process of land acquisition, learning the nuances of local zoning, the creation of public-private partnerships and ultimately a change to state land-use laws that allowed the city to fast-track the project. 

There have been in-kind contributions from civil engineers and consultants like Parametrix and builders—namely Hayden Homes, which designed the template for the tiny houses. Deschutes County lent staff time to help identify potential sites in public ownership—key for a project that was long on ideas but short on cash.

WATCH: Organizers of the Central Oregon Veterans Village, including those from the Bend Heroes Foundation, talk about the project and its impact on our community.

Ultimately, they zeroed in on the county's own parcel near the sheriff's office. The lot is slated for future expansion of the sheriff's campus, but there was no plan for that to happen anytime soon. Tobiason sat down with Sheriff Shane Nelson, who he said was immediately supportive. In the end, the Heroes Foundation and the county inked a 10-year lease for the site—a major coup for the project and a no-turning-back point of sorts for the Heroes Foundation and its partners. 

"The county was super awesome," Tobiason said. "We looked at all the available publicly owned property—county property, city property, school district, parks district, even irrigation districts. We made a list of criteria and properties and kind of landed on the space we ultimately got because it met all of our criteria." That included easy access to public transportation and proximity to the other support services. 

Since breaking ground in January, the partnership has laid the groundwork for utilities, graded a service road and developed the building pads for the homes. Youth volunteers at J Bar J Ranch are putting together the bones of the homes including walls, roof trusses and so on, to be trucked onto the site for final construction. Tobiason sees the collaboration as a win-win. J Bar J youth, all of whom have had legal or behavioral issues, can participate in a worthy cause while learning a skill that they can take with them. 

Students starting construction at J Bar J in northeast Bend. - DARRIS HURST
  • Darris Hurst
  • Students starting construction at J Bar J in northeast Bend.

The concept of independent transitional housing for homeless vets is fairly new. The inspiration for the Bend project came initially from a similar project in Kansas City run by a nonprofit. Closer to home, Clackamas County developed its own Veterans Village with small single-occupancy homes, which opened roughly two years ago to address the issue of homelessness among its veteran population. As is the case here, Clackamas County offered land for the project that provides housing for 15 veterans. To handle the day-to-day operations, Clackamas County partnered with the nonprofit Do Good Multnomah, whose mission is to provide housing support for veterans around the Portland area.

Since opening, the Clackamas Veterans Village project has placed 29 veterans in permanent housing. At the same time, it has expanded its community from 15 veterans to 19 veterans, said Jonny Fisher, veterans and employee relations manager at Do Good Multnomah. 

"The relationship with Clackamas County is extremely strong and healthy. They understand the Do Good model and give us a lot of freedom to get the job done. We don't ask for much, and we were given permission to better the program how we see fit," said Fisher.

Each veteran has his or her own small home where they can keep their personal belongings and enjoy some privacy. They share showers, a kitchen and a communal gathering center. Veterans aren't required to pay rent, but they are required to be good neighbors and contribute to the day-to-day upkeep of the village. 

A composite of what the final houses will look like in the Veterans Village. - COURTESY CENTRAL OREGON VETERANS VILLAGE
  • Courtesy Central Oregon Veterans Village
  • A composite of what the final houses will look like in the Veterans Village.

"They sacrificed so much for us, and they have fought hard their entire lives - whether that be childhood, service, or being on the street. It is now our turn to give them a break and pick up the fight," Fisher said. 

Supporters of the Central Oregon project say they hope that the concept of modest independent housing can be a model for addressing the homeless issue at large. It's an issue that's become more visible over the past few years as the city has grown and the ranks of unhoused people have increased. 

An annual census of individuals experiencing homelessness in Central Oregon tells the story in raw numbers. In 2015, volunteers reported counting 594 homeless individuals around the region. By 2020, that number had increased to 969 individuals, a more than 60% jump. 

Interestingly, one of the bright spots has been the overall decrease in veterans experiencing homelessness. That number fell from a high of 83 veterans in 2017 to 59 last year, according to the figures maintained by the Central Oregon Homeless Leadership Coalition, an umbrella organization that helps to coordinate the efforts of multiple agencies working to end homelessness in the region. Additionally, the number of chronically homeless veterans, those who have been without stable or reliable housing for more than a year, fell significantly from a high of 49 in 2017 to 27 individuals last year. 

The progress reflects the overall decrease in veterans experiencing homelessness nationally. According to the Washington, D.C.-based National Alliance to End Homelessness, the number of homeless vets has dropped by roughly 45% since 2011, thanks in large part to major federal investments in housing for veterans. States including Connecticut have already reached "functional zero" for homelessness among vets, meaning there's enough transitional and long-term housing available for every veteran experiencing homelessness.

A model project

"Vets are an easy population to sell the community to support. And it's a smaller subset of the homeless population, said Colleen Thomas, Deschutes County's homeless liaison and HLC co-chair.

That makes it easier to target resources, she said. Because it's just a slice of the overall homeless population, it's also easier to see and measure results. Even so, supporters of the Central Oregon Veterans Village say that if the project is successful at helping vets break the cycle of homelessness, it could pave the way for other non-traditional approaches to the growing issue of homelessness within the community. 

"How are we going to solve homelessness for 1,000 people in Central Oregon? It's an overwhelming issue when you look at the scope of it," Thomas said. "But if we can solve veterans' homelessness, maybe we can utilize this. If we can showcase this project, then it's easier to sell it to the community, to say, 'We are going to use this model for this other program.'" 

Meanwhile, there's a hidden cost to doing nothing about the larger homeless issues, said Bend City Councilor Barb Campbell, who's worked to support the Veterans Village project and other initiatives aimed at reducing homelessness. She argues that leaving people unhoused creates a strain on public safety, health care and other services that the homeless population ultimately utilizes, usually in times of crisis. 

Creating transitional and temporary housing helps caseworkers and other service providers create relationships with clients experiencing homelessness. Oftentimes, they can identify a problem before it develops into an emergency. When that doesn't happen and vulnerable populations are left to their own devices, it costs the community time and money and consumes limited resources, like mental health crisis intervention or emergency room medicine, Campbell said. 

While the City of Bend has made the creation of affordable housing a priority for many years. it's never been directly involved in providing temporary or transitional shelter to individuals experiencing homelessness. That job typically fell to nonprofits and other agencies with direct access to funding. That approach and attitude are changing, however. The City is currently working to purchase the Old Mill and Suites on Third Street, pending the approval of a grant from Project Turnkey, a program created by the Oregon legislature "for the purpose of acquiring motels or hotels to shelter people experiencing homelessness or at-risk of homelessness," according to a press release for the program.

If successful, the City hopes to transform the motor lodge-style motel near Wilson Avenue—near Rite-Aid and Vince Genna Stadium—into a temporary homeless shelter. The preliminary plan includes space for offices that could be used to coordinate homeless outreach and service to multiple shelters within the city. 

Seeing that project to completion would reflect a major shift in how the City of Bend deals with the issue of homelessness and poverty—and it took a sea change in thinking at the City Council level to do it. 

"Honestly, the problem just grew to the point where we just genuinely took the attitude that it has to be all hands on deck," Campbell said. 

The City of Bend has pledged financial support to assist with the annual operating costs of the Veterans Village in the form of a construction tax. Deschutes County has already pledged $100,000 toward the Veterans Village's projected $300,000 annual operating cost. 

"Genuinely, I don't know how we can be successful (without cooperation). The whole community has to work together. We are all going to have to carry a piece of this," Campbell said. 

Finding a common space

One of the barriers to relocating unhoused individuals, veterans or otherwise, to transitional housing is the chorus of objections that usually arise from neighbors. Backers of the Veterans Village have tried to assuage some of the fears raised by its neighbors in the nearby Chestnut Park neighborhood by opening a dialogue with existing residents.

COURTESY CENTRAL OREGON VETERANS VILLAGE
  • Courtesy Central Oregon Veterans Village

Tobiason said neighbors were generally supportive of the concept, but had worries about how the new residents would impact them. Many of them shared some of the negative experiences they had as a result of a temporary winter warming shelter that operated out of the sheriff's campus last winter. 

To address the concerns, Veterans Village supporters set up a working group that includes members of the local homeowners association, the Bend Heroes Foundation, Central Oregon Veterans Outreach and representatives from the county and city. The goal is to maintain a dialogue that creates space for understanding and cooperation. 

"Ultimately it's a different kind of constituent that will be living in our village," said Tobiason, whose regular day job is working as a financial planner. 

He inherited his passion for veterans issues from his father, who organized the effort to create the veterans memorial in Bend and helped to start the Honor Flight program for WWII vets. Tobiason said we owe veterans the benefit of the doubt and the opportunity for a second chance at normalcy. 

"They served our country and they want to improve their lives and move into permanent housing. They're your neighbors, and they're going to be like any other neighbor."

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