At the recent Deschutes County Fair, one building was unlike the others. Tucked between a pool with a high dive and the livestock complex, a small "village style" shelter was brought in along with information on the various efforts to start what's been called managed camps, village-style shelters and tiny home villages.
Oasis Village, Central Oregon Villages, St. Vincent de Paul and others from the patchwork of houseless service providers manned the tent, fielding questions about the projects. Central Oregon's first village-style shelter opened in November with Central Oregon Veteran's Village; now, at least three others are in the works.
Oasis Village started as the Redmond Village Team under Jericho Road, a nonprofit that brings food, emergency assistance and housing resources to unhoused people in Redmond. It envisioned a village like Rogue Retreat's Hope Village in Jackson County to address Redmond's rising houseless population. The booth at the fair featured a structure that will eventually become one of Oasis Village's 10-12 single-bedroom units upon opening, and possibly as many as 40 by completion.
Redmond's houseless population is less visible than Bend's, but that's changing. Last year tents started popping up along Highway 97 through town for the first time. Redmond's more typical unhoused person is living in a recreation vehicle east of Redmond's industrial area on Deschutes County and Bureau of Land Management property.
"There's probably on the order of 150, plus or minus 50. But somewhere between 100-200 individuals that live in the junipers," said Bob Bohac, chair of Oasis Village. "But they of course come into Redmond for all their activities: shopping, going to St. Vincent's food pantry, clothing, doctor's appointments, they're all coming into Redmond."
Living in hard-to-reach places provides a challenge to houseless services. Outreach to smaller campsites scattered across public lands means it's more difficult keeping track of people, more arduous trips to deliver essential supplies and a more entrenched population that is accustomed to an off-the-grid lifestyle.
"A lot of those people have been out there longer, have become self-sufficient, and in many cases, through bad experiences trying to get help but not getting help, have become more or less settled into that lifestyle," said James Cook, vice-chair of Oasis Village. "The challenges we're going to face is convincing those people that this is a realistic opportunity to improve their situation. because a number of them will have failed at other attempts before."
Another huge barrier to getting people in programs in Redmond is the fear of theft. Every trip to town could end in the theft of their property. Bohac said shortly after moving to Central Oregon in 2013 he volunteered for a Shepherd's House warming center stationed in Redmond churches. Despite outreach informing houseless people there'd be a warm place to stay on cold nights, zero people took them up on it.
"I thought that that would be a very natural way to get people who are in the camps into safer quarters, at least in cold nights in the wintertime. Not a single one of them came," Bohac said. Bohac shared the story of Medford-based Rogue Retreat staff doing interviews at Redmond's winter shelter on a low-population night with only around 19 individuals, finding an interesting fact about who was there. "There was no one at the shelter that lived in the camps," he said. "There were people who might live within trailers on the streets of Redmond, but there are really distinct subpopulations."
People living in the camps are a population Oasis Village hopes will take a chance on services. Accommodations include a parking area where people can stash RVs and belongings while going through the program and the ability for couples to apply. But with over a year until its anticipated opening in November 2023, Cook said they're avoiding putting up too many barriers to entry.
"We do want to be a low-barrier shelter. Which, right now the amount of low-barrier shelters that's available to someone on a stable basis, as opposed to just day-to-day or night tonight, is very limited in Redmond, and even in Central Oregon," Cook said.
“We're one part of that work, but we're working with other people to ensure that that whole continuum is available.”—James Cook
The low barrier to enter is matched by a higher barrier to remain. No drugs or alcohol will be allowed on the premises. Disrespectful behavior to staff or neighbors won't be tolerated, and any violence will get someone kicked from the program. People will also have to follow individually tailored plans set up by a caseworker, meeting goals for things like employment, rehabilitation and applying for benefits.
"From the experience of other groups that are running shelter villages, they generally find that people take three months to about two years to transition through the program into something that is more stable," Cook said.
That could include another transitional program or stable housing, something made difficult by the lack of affordable housing in Central Oregon. The full range of services will rely on other nonprofits tackling the same issues. A common notion heard from houseless service providers is that they're just one piece of a larger coalition seeking to end the houseless crisis—a notion Cook echoes.
"We're one part of that work, but we're working with other people to ensure that that whole continuum is available," Cook said.
The Whole Puzzle
Zoom out and look at the whole puzzle and you'll find that indeed, no houseless service provider works alone. Oasis Village lists Hayden Homes, Rogue Retreat, Jericho Road, Heart of Oregon Corps and more as partners, but truly there's even more interaction with a range of businesses and nonprofits.
Bohac says Hayden Homes has been invaluable with site planning and providing designs for the shelters. Jericho Road does outreach and helps spread the word at the camps. Rogue Retreat provides knowledge of running a village shelter. And Heart of Oregon Corps and its offshoot YouthBuild will construct up to 15 units.
"We're able to provide job training and skills within Central Oregon, but really giving back to Redmond's community," said YouthBuild program director Tanner Roehne. "A lot of our youth are coming from the Redmond area. So, this is just a natural platform with our training center located in Redmond."
YouthBuild trains about 45 students a year in construction and child and youth development, leaving students with entry level certifications needed to enter those fields. The program also provides credit recovery for students in high school or GED programs. Its focus on the construction and child care industry is a response to community needs.
"Construction started off as our main focus," Roehne said. "It's an identified need of affordable housing. And one way to combat that is to be able to go out there and do it. Construction is one of the leading fields in Central Oregon. And this is a natural funnel for young people to get these jobs skills and go into this overarching field."
YouthBuild students built the shelter displayed at the fair, expecting to finish up the interior in the next month. Oasis Village is hoping YouthBuild can make a shelter every month, and materials are already acquired to build the second shelter. Redmond High School's Construction Technology classes are also chipping in, expecting to build a unit or two per semester during the 2022-2023 school year.
"They'd really like to have something that has the plans, and students can go from the electronic plans to seeing it actually built," Bohac said. "These partnerships along the way have been a blessing, we are doing as much as we can trying to involve the partners with community members, whether it's Rotary, Kiwanis, VFW, doctors, churches—we try to do as much local fundraising as we can."
Oasis Village is funded through three grants totaling just under $1 million. Bohac says it's using that money to hire staff to oversee the camp, administrative roles and grant writers. The free labor from YouthBuild and Redmond High School and a free 2-acre parcel ceded by Deschutes County have been helpful getting the project off the ground, but the program will need more self-sustaining funding sources once the program begins, he said.
There have been some hurdles to opening its doors, most recently with its need to bring infrastructure to the worksite. Its most recent timeline is less optimistic than previous estimates of 9-12 months after securing a site, mirroring setbacks other village shelters are facing.
Meanwhile, another village is almost ready for its opening day. All 10 housing units at St. Vincent De Paul are already constructed, and the only needs for development are the central community building and an upgrade to the power line that can fuel the electronic gates and security system. The original opening day was set for March, but the electrical issues delayed the village months back. It's now projected to open in September.
"The program director can't occupy his [on site] house until we get the inspection, which we can't get until we have power," said Gary Hewitt, executive director of St. Vincent de Paul.
St. Vincent's Place was in the planning phase through summer of 2021 and has been able to break ground faster than other villages since St. Vincent de Paul owns the land the village sits on. The program is catering to non-chronic houseless people.
"We can't help the mentally ill; we aren't set up to do that here. There is a place for that, I'm sure, but it's not here. We need to help people who are just struggling and almost there but can't get there," Hewitt said.
Central Oregon Villages, another shelter that'll cater to women over 65 in its first round of applicants, faced several setbacks when acquiring land. A proposal to create a shelter on Ninth Street got thrown out after intense public scrutiny, leading them to seek other accommodations. Now, the village will lease land adjacent to Desert Streams Church on 27th Street in Bend. It's in phase one of a contract with the City of Bend to conduct public outreach, and will be able to break ground once a report on public outreach is accepted by the City.