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Bend sweeps illegal campsite for third time this year

bend homeless sweep
Joni Auden Land / OPB
/
OPB
Rena, a person experiencing homelessness in Bend, sits in front of her tent with her dog, Scooby. The city of Bend is planning on removing her and others camped in the area, after the site was declared a public safety hazard.

Around 7 a.m. on Thursday morning, with temperatures well below freezing, Bend police informed 13 people living in tents that they would have to leave.

This comes nearly two weeks after City Manager Eric King declared the encampment on Second Street a “public safety hazard,” and that all residents there would have to find somewhere else to live.

A private contractor, Central Oregon Bio Solutions, was tossing tents, belongings and garbage into trailers, as police blocked off the road to the public.

Sam Johnson, a resident of the camp, sat in his wheelchair and watched a few hours later, tears in his eyes. For him, it was an incredibly emotional experience.

“I lived in that tent,” Johnson said. “I know what cold is, I know what hungry is and I know what it’s like to watch everything you own get thrown into a dumpster.”

A military veteran and double amputee, Johnson would not say where he was staying, only that he was more concerned with where others on Second Street would camp come nightfall. It was 35 degrees outside.

The city originally planned to remove the tents on Tuesday, but postponed that decision after Cheyenne Purrington, director of the Coordinated Houseless Response Office, called the city and asked for more time.

Purrington said she wanted to help the camp’s most vulnerable residents find a safe place to go before police evicted them from the camp. She said many people living at the camp had underlying medical issues and couldn’t leave on their own.

“The folks that are living unsheltered in our communities are typically the folks with the most significant behavioral health needs,” Purrington said.

But Purrington and residents at the camp said Thursday’s removal is unlikely to prevent anyone from camping in the near future. Many will simply set up their tents somewhere else in the city, while others could return to Second Street.

It’s the third time this year the city has removed a camp on Second Street, which is located near shelters and other service providers.

City of Bend spokesperson Anne Aurand said it’s possible that people could soon return to Second Street. Until it becomes a public safety hazard again, there’s little the city can legally do to stop them.

“We don’t have a great tool to prevent people from camping there,” Aurand said.

Federal courts have ruled local governments cannot cite unhoused people for camping when no shelter is available — and that’s the case in Bend, where local shelters are at or near capacity. Aurand said the shelter near Second Street is now over capacity after the sweep, as the shelter makes room for those no longer living at the camp.

The Bend City Council is currently considering a code change that would set new rules on where and when camping on public property would be allowed. Another roundtable discussion on the code is scheduled for early November.

Purrington said the homelessness problem in Bend isn’t going away, and the same goes for much of the state.

Twenty-five mayors in Oregon — including Bend Mayor Gena Goodman-Campbell — signed and sent a letter on Oct. 14 to the three gubernatorial candidates. They demanded that the next governor provide more funding for cities to handle their growing unhoused populations.

Meanwhile, in Portland, Mayor Ted Wheeler announced plans to ban all illegal camping across the city and force unhoused people to live in three city-designated camping sites.

Aurand said there are no sweeps planned for the rest of the winter, although an encampment on Hunnel Road will likely be swept in the spring due to planned road maintenance.

Copyright 2022 Oregon Public Broadcasting. To see more, visit Oregon Public Broadcasting.

Joni Land