Central Oregon Veterans Outreach estimates that there are between 80 and 100 veterans living in the region without homes.
But the exact number is hard to find. The 2019 Point In Time Count published by the Homeless Leadership Coalition reported 62 veterans.
- Cheri Helt
- The supplies for 15 tiny homes for veterans have arrived in Bend and are being assembled by volunteers from Central Oregon Veterans Outreach and the Bend Heroes Foundation.
Hundreds of homeless camps dot the landscape on the outskirts of Bend and Redmond. Many people without homes live in the woods because they'd rather not be found, according to James Cook, co-chair of the Central Oregon Homeless Leadership Coalition.
But a new project aimed at providing temporary shelters for veterans is uniting city, county and state leaders across the political spectrum. The Central Oregon Veterans Village aims to build 15 transitional shelters and a community center for 15 veterans in the region.
Erik Tobiason, president of the Bend Heroes Foundation, along with COVO, are spearheading the program.
"It's not a done deal until the ink is dry," Tobiason told the Source. "But I want to emphasize that the City of Bend, the Deschutes County commissioners and Rep. (Cheri) Helt have been very supportive and share the vision and are prioritizing this program in their leadership activities."
Tobiason said the plan is to have the shelter community built by next fall, behind the Deschutes County Public Safety Campus near the Sheriff's Office. Supplies for 15 tiny homes are already in Bend, and volunteers are working to assemble and paint the small cottages. Tobiason presented the proposal to the Deschutes County Commissioners Jan. 27. Now, county staff are drafting a memorandum of understanding with COVO and the Bend Heroes Foundation, establishing an agreement to lease the land owned by Deschutes County to the nonprofits.
Tobiason is also working to raise funds to build a community center in the new village. The individual tiny homes won't have running water or cooking facilities, but the main building will have a kitchen, bathrooms, showers and meeting rooms.
Tobiason was inspired by the Clackamas County Veterans Village, opened in 2019 and funded entirely through the Clackamas County general fund. Do Good Multnomah, a veteran-managed nonprofit, provides daily services to help veterans transition from homelessness to self-sufficiency.
In the case of the Deschutes County facility, "We can't just say, 'welcome to the village, here's your home, good luck,'" Tobiason said. "That is where COVO comes in. We're going to manage the construction of the shelters, they're going to provide the daily services and continuous case management to help solve the ongoing problems that veterans face, especially when they've been living out in the woods for years."
COVO will help with behavioral and physical health services, job training and the eventual transition to more independent living. The Deschutes County Stabilization Center is scheduled to open this spring on the same campus as the village, adding an additional safety net. DCSC was designed as an alternative for people in crisis so they don't have to go to the emergency room or to jail.
Phase Two of the project is to build high-density, long-term, affordable housing with on-site or nearby access to ongoing support. Tobiason is working with the City and County to find more public land that could be donated to the cause.
Tobiason's other inspiration for the Central Oregon Veterans Village was the Veterans Community Project in Kansas City, Missouri, funded entirely through private donations. That community has 49 colorfully painted tiny homes with a 4,600-square-foot community center. Tobiason's vision is to create the best of both worlds, forming a true public/private partnership that combines the public funding model of Clackamas County with substantial donations from private donors.
Tobiason brought the idea to Rep. Helt (R-Bend) in November. She then organized a meeting with City Councilors Barb Campbell and Bruce Abernethy, County Commissioner Phil Henderson and advocates from COVO.
"There was unanimous support," Helt said. "The group united around the fact that the veterans have served us, and now it is our job as community advocates to come together and serve them."
Tobiason is hopeful that if the veterans village is a success, it will garner more support for other people without homes in the region.
"We can't even house middle-income and poverty-level people in this town," Tobiason said. "We hope this is just the beginning, a pilot project that shows what can be done, and that it could be done on a much larger scale to really take the bite out of the homeless problem in our community."
Cook of COHLC also sees the project as an opportunity to demonstrate what a successful transitional program could look like. He said that the wrap-around support is essential for helping people reach long-lasting independence.
Cook also pointed out that the real number of people without homes in Central Oregon is much higher than the 880 documented during the 2019 Point In Time Count. A recount by Portland State University in 2017 found that the population of unhoused people in Multnomah, Clackamas and Washington counties was seven times higher (38,000 people) than the PIT count reported (5,700 people).
"The problem is mostly hidden here, because many people mostly live in the woods outside our cities and come into town to buy food and access services," Cook said. "If people are pushed off public lands without being offered a safe and legal alternative, they'll move in town and we'll have a more visible issue. We're going to need everyone working together on this—city, county, state, homeless advocacy groups, private donors—if we hope to have an impact."
In the meantime, by next fall, at least 15 veterans will have a temporary shelter to call home.