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Shelter from the Smoke 

Locals mobilize to offer a space for people without homes to go, away from the hazardous air quality

Bend’s Air Quality Index was hovering in the 300 range Tuesday afternoon. The AQI was an improvement from days prior, when the fires raging around Oregon caused Bendites to see AQI ratings of 500 or more.

Other than Medford, no city in Oregon had experienced a hazardous air quality day since the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality began monitoring in the 1970s. Medford had one day of hazardous air quality in both 2017 and 1987. Last week, Eugene had five hazardous days; Bend and Medford had three; Portland two, and Klamath Falls one, the DEQ stated Tuesday. Bend’s previous record AQI was 231 (very unhealthy) in 2017. Bend’s new record is over 500 (beyond the AQI scale) set on Saturday, according to DEQ.

That hazardous air quality forced people to keep windows and doors tightly closed. Stores saw a run on air purifiers. Some set up makeshift air purifiers using air filters taped to box fans.

But for the people without an indoor space to call their own, taping a filter to a fan wouldn’t be enough to stave off the relentless smoke, which moved into Central Oregon Friday when winds changed and began to blow eastward.

click to enlarge Outside the temporary smoke shelter at First Presbyterian Church. - NICOLE VULCAN
  • Nicole Vulcan
  • Outside the temporary smoke shelter at First Presbyterian Church.

For a small fraction of the people living outdoors during this massive wildfire event, at least two local churches have become places of respite. Over the weekend, First Presbyterian Church and First United Methodist Church in Bend formed temporary, emergency-relief “smoke shelters” inside their buildings—a place for those without homes to spend time indoors. First United Methodist offered its space only over the weekend. First Presbyterian, approved by the fire marshal to house 23 individuals as a temporary shelter, plans to keep its shelter open through Thursday, when the smoke is expected to clear, said Morgan Schmidt, pastor at First Presbyterian. Mattresses on loan from NeighborImpact and Shepherd’s House line the annex and the smaller chapel. Donations of basic supplies, such as toothbrushes, snacks and donated clothes are set up around the space. Families with small children—and their dogs—mill around. Everyone wears a mask while inside.

 If the numbers go above 23, some stay in their cars outside, coming inside during the day, said Lindsey Stailing, board member of the Homeless Leadership Coalition and patient support program manager for Mosaic Medical. In addition to basic shelter services, Mosaic has provided some medical care for the people on site.

“A lot of them struggle with health conditions. We have some families; we have an individual experiencing a pregnancy. It’s really important that these folks are able to get out of the smoke so that they can stay healthy,” Stailing said.

Highlighting a need

Bend’s shelter space is already woefully inadequate for the hundreds of people who are considered homeless in the area—and with the cooler weather ahead, the annual issue of housing people in winter is about to come up again. Last year, the Deschutes County Sheriff’s Office offered a building under renovation for the temporary shelter. The year before, it was housed in a private building in downtown Bend.

click to enlarge Morgan Schmidt, pastor at First Presbyterian Church, helped to organize a smoke relief shelter at her church this week. - NICOLE VULCAN
  • Nicole Vulcan
  • Morgan Schmidt, pastor at First Presbyterian Church, helped to organize a smoke relief shelter at her church this week.

“What we really need is to find a longer-term solution, because these are just band-aids,” Stailing said. “We are just trying to make things a little bit easier for a really tiny amount of time. We are planning for our emergency winter shelters for the very same reason. We don’t have a place. We don’t have a commitment for a place that can house folks, and we have a need that is bigger than 23. We’re talking about close to 1,000 people experiencing some version of homelessness.”

Stailing said the people staying at the temporary smoke shelters are not “out of towners,” but are Central Oregonians. “We need lower-barrier options in this town to help transition those folks out of homelessness. Since it’s pretty hard to build houses and apartments, we need to start thinking creatively about longer-term strategies to get folks out—and sometimes that’s going to look a little more creative than just building an apartment building.”

Ideas into action

Schmidt—who is also the driving force behind Pandemic Partners, a series of Facebook groups connecting people with resources during the COVID-19 pandemic—said the idea for the smoke shelters was conceived just last Friday. With 24 hours, the first smoke shelter was open.

“By Saturday morning I was on a call at 9 (with the Homeless Leadership Coalition). I was on a call at 11:30 with a bunch of providers, local churches, local folks who said, ‘let’s talk about it.’” Later Saturday, the churches had gotten approval from the fire marshal for 23 guests at First Presbyterian.

Schmidt said she’s also working with other community partners to help connect restauranteurs and other locals who want to support evacuees and houseless individuals with food and other resources. As of press time, they were in the midst of gaining approval to add a Bend directory on the site Dine11, a site, developed in the midst of the pandemic, that connects restaurants that can cook and deliver food with people who want to donate. Schmidt said they hope to have the Bend directory up and running by Friday. When it becomes available, that Bend directory will be visible at Dine11.org.

About The Author

Nicole Vulcan

Nicole Vulcan has been editor of the Source since 2016. (Blame her for everything since then.) Favorite car: A Trek commuter bike. Favorite cat: An adopted dog who looks like a Jedi master. Favorite things, besides responding to your comments: Downton Abbey re-runs, Aretha Franklin albums, and pink wine.
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