With a housing shortage, high rents and hundreds of people moving to Bend each month, it's inevitable that some will be left out. According to the Portland State University Population Research Center, there were 3,265 new residents to the city in 2017, an increase of 3.8 percent in a single year. The Bethlehem Inn is one of only a few shelters working to help those down on their luck.
"Many people are coming here because they've been priced out of the market," said Gwenn Wysling, executive director of the Bethlehem Inn. "It's not just that there's not enough housing—it's affordable housing."
The organization has spent the last few weeks moving into a new building—one that's been in the works for more than five years, and under construction for more than a year. To show off the new digs, they've entered into the Tour of Homes presented by the Central Oregon Builders Association, where visitors can tour the 10 new family units.
The Bethlehem Inn began in the late 1990s, rotating from church to church. In 2007, Deschutes County purchased the land the Inn is currently on and allowed the Inn to move into the existing motel. Bethlehem Inn purchased the property from the county in 2016, but leaders knew they had to do something with the aging buildings.
"We own the land now and we can't fix these old motels up, they're way past their expiration dates," Wysling explained. "That was like 'well should we stay, should we go, should we build, should we go out and buy another piece of land?' That is hard to do. We had a place we loved."
To phase the project, crews tore down one of the three buildings and the staff moved into trailers for more than a year. The total budget for the project is $9 million, with around 20 percent coming from government grants, 20 percent from foundations and other grants, and the rest raised from the community.
The newly-completed building will house staff, a dining facility (including a brand-new kitchen) and family housing. The second phase of the project will be a second building meant to house singles.
"The majority of the people right now in this full employment market are working. Over 75 percent of the residents that come here have or gain employment while they're here," Wysling explained. "The majority of them move to stable housing. There's no reason for somebody not to be working right now, and if they're not, then there might be something else that they're challenged with."
People will generally stay anywhere from a week to a few months, if they're working to save up money or find a place to live. Wysling explained, "It's no cost to them other than just showing up and doing a few chores, making your bed and being a good neighbor. There's a lot of what we consider community building that people have to do in order to live in an environment like this."
The Inn serves three meals a day. Volunteers cook dinner, with up to a few dozen people coming in to help every night. With the new kitchen (something the Inn did not previously have), volunteers can now cook meals right on site.
"We now have the space to do that," Wysling said, "and on Saturday we put the call out and we had over 60 volunteers here helping with the move. Volunteer hours are somewhere about 18,000 hours a year. If you were to multiply that times a month times the average volunteer, it's about 10 full-time staff members." The Bethlehem Inn also has 19 employees, including case workers.
Wysling, who's been with the Bethlehem Inn for nearly 10 years, has hundreds of stories of people whose lives have been changed there.
"A young family who came here, a father and a mother, and the father couldn't pass the drug test," Wysling remembered. "So, they were all leaving, going back to the motel that they were going to try and figure out how to pay for."
A case manager pulled the mother aside and told her she and her children were welcome to stay.
"That was a very difficult decision for her, because this was her husband and as much as she needed housing, that was that familiarity of leaving something that maybe she knew was not healthy but it was familiar," she explained. "In the end they were able to stay. The kids got enrolled in school. They were four, five, and six and none of them had ever been in school. The oldest one learned how to read here, and it was just so touching when they moved out. To see them pack up their belongings and reconnect with her family and they got to meet the grandkids that they had never met."
Others find themselves asking for help because of a one-time event, such as a job loss or rent hike. Wysling recalls one man whose house had burned down, but who has since turned his life around.
"I sat down with him one day on the work site here, because he got hired by SunWest, and he helped to build the shelter," she said. "He was just saying how incredibly grateful he was that he had a place to live and as a result found very gainful employment in his field. But, when you have lost everything in a fire, it's devastating. You feel that sense of loss and hopelessness."
As soon as the first building is officially wrapped up, the second building will begin construction, which they expect to have done within a year.
The Tour of Homes will act as a sort of grand opening for the new building. Wysling and the rest of the staff and volunteers are excited to show the new homes that the community helped make happen.
"I think it's very exciting for the community because they get to come in and see something," she said. "Maybe they didn't see the old motel that we had to take down to build this, but I think they see the hope and the opportunity and the dignity that's available to anyone who, for whatever reason, falls on hard times and just needs a second chance."
3705 N Hwy 97, Bend