By Erin Rook, Source Weekly
Liz, a 53-year-old grandmother with greying shoulder-length blonde hair and a matter-of-fact demeanor, recently took a job in Bend to be closer to her daughter and grandchildren in La Pine. But her coworkers don’t know that the new hire, who shows up to work on time and doesn’t believe in taking days off, is homeless and had been sleeping in her car in the company’s 5 acre parking lot before she found the Bethlehem Inn, a decade-old program in North Bend that serves 1,000 people each year with housing, food and other services.
“I’m probably not your typical homeless person, if there is a ‘typical’ homeless person. It’s not typical for me,” she clarifies. “I’ve never been homeless.” When Liz—who declined to give her last name—decided to leave her job in the Eugene/Springfield area, she never imagined she’d end up in a homeless shelter. She works full-time and says she has a clean rental history, without evictions or late payments. She does not struggle with mental illness or addiction, and she is not fleeing an abusive relationship. But, like a growing number of individuals and families in Bend, Liz quickly found that having a job, savings, and a spotless history does not guarantee housing in a rental market with a mere one percent vacancy. Moreover, because her daughter lives in subsidized housing which doen’t allow overnight guests more than 14 days per year, turning to family members for housing hasn’t been an option. “Right now I know several individuals and families that have the resources to move into housing, but they cannot find rentals which they can afford and that will accept them,” says Bethlehem Inn Managing Director Chris Clouart.
Clouart explains that he recently got a call from a woman whose 72-year-old mother is in a similar predicament. The older woman, who receives Section 8 assistance, was forced to move when her landlord decided to sell the house. “They assumed it would be fairly simple to find the mother housing,” Clouart says, “but with just days before she is to leave [her housing], the daughter called me to see if the Inn was an option.” He continues, “because of the mother’s health, it is not, and the daughter’s subsidized housing will not allow the mother to move in with her. Other than some phone numbers I had no solutions to offer.”
Advocates at the Oct. 4 Homelessness Leadership Council meeting echoed this concern. Kenny LaPoint, director of housing and resident services for Housing Works, says he’s in the process of giving out 50 rent vouchers, but worries his clients won’t be able to find a landlord to accept them.
“The need, as well as the demographics of those experiencing homelessness, have increased and changed,” Clouart says. “When I first started at the Bethlehem Inn [in 2007] the economy had yet to implode. It was still possible to get fairly steady day labor if you were able bodied. Of course, the housing market was tight and expensive but there were ways around that. Our population was a known quantity. That has changed.”
With beds for 126 singles and 5 families, Bethlehem Inn is the only emergency shelter in Central and Eastern Oregon. Currently, it houses 76 adults and 17 children, though staff expect the empty beds to fill up as winter approaches. For the first time, Bethlehem Inn hit capacity last winter and, say administrators, now even seasons like the warm summer months are now experiencing an increased need.
“We got full this summer for the first time,” Weekend Manager Tara Feurtado recalls. “That was really scary.”