BEND, OR -- When the Homeless Leadership Coalition released numbers this week showing a more than 30% increase in the Central Oregon homeless population, those who work with the homeless weren’t surprised.
Chris Clouart, Managing Director of the Bethlehem Inn, says the one-day count is just a snapshot of a much larger regional problem. "People who are working, and working hard, and doing everything they’re supposed to do in order to move forward in the world, are not able to find housing that’s affordable." He tells KBND News, "Not only is it the people who are working, but it’s those people on fixed incomes who can no longer afford the housing market as it exists in Bend, right now because, of course, what we would consider ‘affordable housing’ is often thought of as subsidized housing. And, the waiting lists for some of these places that essentially charge 30% of your income in order for you to get an apartment, the waiting lists are 18-24 months." And, he says the problem now stretches to family that used to provide support. "Ten or 15 years ago, you might’ve been able to say, ‘well, I’m going to go live with her sister.’ Well, your sister now has her daughter living with her, with her three grandchildren, so you’re not able to live there."
Clouart expects the number of people needing shelter will continue to rise as Central Oregon's population ages. He says many Bethlehem Inn residents used to leave in the spring, opting to live outside. But, the shelter's numbers now hold steady, year-round. "It’s an idea somehow that, as the weather gets warm, that anybody that might be seeking shelter or who might be homeless can take advantage of the great outdoors. Well, of course, a lot of people pay good money to go camping, but as a lifestyle it’s not something that’s conducive to either maintaining your employment, or your health, for that matter. It’s not possible for somebody who has a C-PAP machine and needs oxygen to go out into the woods and camp. We have a lot of folks who are part of the baby boom generation whose health is beginning to fail, who suddenly find themselves priced out of the market."
The Bethlehem Inn used to see the number of daily residents drop to around 50 or 60 in the spring and summer, which would allow staff to focus on maintenance projects. This week, Clouart says they have almost 90 people staying at the shelter on North Highway 97. "What this means is that we’ve got people crammed into rooms; we’ve got people whose nerves are on edge. I got a gentlemen who exited this morning, and we have a form that people fill out and we say ‘what do you think would be an improvement for the Bethlehem Inn?’ And this guy said, ‘not so many people per rooms.’ That would be nice; the problem is that means there would be people who would be turned away." And, he says they try not to turn anyone away.
Crews begin construction next week on a major shelter expansion project.