On a mild February afternoon, Jim Vistad watches television in a cafeteria. He sits underneath a white board with lists of chores, rules and checkout times. For the past 35 years, Vistad has called Bend home and was once a cook at the Pilot Butte Drive-In. He has watched the city grow and has witnessed the housing market for low-income earners shrink. For a few years, Vistad was a live-in caregiver for a man until the man's death. Now he struggles with his own health complications and has suffered several heart attacks over the last decade. Mounting medical bills totaling around $500,000 and his medical condition have affected his ability to work. Most of the time, Vistad is on oxygen. "I always had a job until I had trouble with my heart," he says. Until Vistad can find affordable housing, the Bethlehem Inn will remain home.
A few weeks ago, the Central Oregon Homeless Leadership Coalition conducted a shelter count of people living in shelters. Unlike previous years, this year's effort counted only people living in shelters—so people living in camps, cars, doubled up with other families and on the street were not accounted for. "Next year will be that more comprehensive street count," says Bob Moore with the COHLC. "Partnering with the homeless liaisons in the school districts will happen next year," he adds.
The Bethlehem Inn, once a motel, is a shelter for men, women and children opened in 1999. According to its website, the shelter serves 1,100 people every year and prepares 74,000 meals annually. Vistad says that everyone gets a knock on his or her door at 6 a.m., and they have to leave for the day to look for housing or employment. The shelter has a few computers to assist with job hunting and Vistad offers to help anyone looking for a food service job. "I run into people having trouble with their resume or cover letters," he says. "I'll help people out who need their food handlers card—I can study with them to make sure they pass."
Multiple organizations like Bethlehem Inn, Deschutes County Probation and Parole, Saving Grace and NeighborImpact were part of the 2016 shelter count. NeighborImpact is in charge of crunching the numbers and sending them to the state. Moore says the data will become available sometime in April. He says the state of Oregon relies on nonprofits and communities to assist with the count.
Associate Director of Housing Stabilization Mary Marson manages emergency housing programs like shelters, rental assistance and longer-term rental assistance. Marson says the numbers from this year's count are entered into a state database, which is also accessed by the federal government. She says the need for emergency housing assistance in Central Oregon is big. "We're only able to help a fraction of the people that seek assistance from us," she says. "For probably every four calls we get we're probably only able to help one to two."
The rigors of housing stabilization are far reaching. "The lack of rental units, the cost of them when they are available, the income requirements, and the fair market rent requirements—those are the barriers that we are just seeing over and over and over again," says Marson.
Vistad is working with a few agencies to help find him a home. He feels like his chances are slim. "I don't know a lot of people who have gotten housing here," he says. If it wasn't for Bethlehem Inn, he says he would be out on the street. "It's comfortable here," Vistad says. "It takes a little bit to get used to—it's a safe place, staff is willing to help you out." An onsite clothing room can be accessed by people staying at the shelter.
Bethlehem Inn Managing Director Chris Clouart says the definition of homelessness by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has changed. According to HUD, homelessness is defined as "an individual who lacks housing (without regard to whether the individual is a member of a family), including an individual whose primary residence during the night is a supervised public or private facility (e.g., shelters) that provides temporary living accommodations, and an individual who is a resident in transitional housing." He says people living in motels or shelters, who don't have homes of their own, sometimes don't self-identify as homeless, especially people who have been living in that situation for long periods of time. Factors further contributing to homelessness are people coping with mental illness, addiction and traumatic events. Clouart lists examples of men he has encountered like a Vietnam veteran who became an addict and a guy who lost his wife. "Someone pulled the foundation from underneath him," Clouart says. In one way or another, "We all depend on other people to survive," he says. "We're trying to lessen the amount of pain in the world."
Vistad has also been searching for housing in transitional facilities. "Right now there's none. I know—I've called them all," he says. The waiting time for a room or an affordable housing unit has a waiting list ranging from one month to six years out, according to Vistad. An additional housing option—like searching for vacant rooms posted on Craigslist—is something he's tried, but he says it's too expensive. Vistad says rental application fees present another obstacle. "You should be able to go some place and only pay one fee to rent instead of everybody charging you from $30 to $50—that's ridiculous," he says.
Many people slip through the cracks when it comes to finding shelter or qualifying for housing assistance. "Sometimes I think what I hear anecdotally is people are maybe able to find somebody to double up with or perhaps if there are some shelter openings elsewhere, they may go to those," says Marson with NeighborImpact. "A lot of times where we have really struggled this past year and a half with being able to get folks into some of the rental units is that there are so few rental units available, secondly because it is a seller's market. The owners, landlords or property management can really charge a fair amount of rent," she says.
Vistad adds that his medical debt has prevented him from finding a place. "With debt like that, you can't get housing," he says. This is the second time he's needed to turn to Bethlehem Inn for a place to stay. "I know a lot of people who are not in shelter," Vistad says. "There are more needy people than places and not enough people to help them because there are so many—that's tough."
For more information on homelessness in Central Oregon and how to help, visit Central Oregon Homeless Coalition's website at cohomeless.org.