In a new year amid an unending pandemic, Bend First United Methodist Church is feeling hopeful about the prospects of helping more houseless individuals through two new planned villages for the houseless on vacant lots.
The city of Bend has tentatively approved two prospective lots where Central Oregon Villages – a non-profit established by members of Bend Church – can begin putting together two communities of small structures that will help to get houseless people off the streets and hopefully onto a path of stable housing.
“It feels like a mission of justice as opposed to a mission of mercy,” said Rev. Jen Stuart, lead pastor at Bend Church.
For more than 20 years, Bend Church has been involved in all sorts of houseless ministries in the community. Whether it was operating a shelter or its Open-Door breakfast program, or most recently its “mail ministry” program which seeks to provide people in transition with a place to collect their mail, the church has a rich history of helping those in need.
Chuck Hemingway, a longtime member of the congregation who was once homeless, said all this work has been tremendous and has brought people into the church. But it’s time to look outward, he said.
“We’re trying to reach people where they’re at,” he said.
Specifically, in two sections of town Central Oregon Villages is trying to provide shelter for those who are living nearby in tents or “tent cities” that have grown.
Stuart and Hemingway aren’t shy about the fact it has taken some work to get some of the neighborhoods to agree to building shelter for the homeless – and all the negative perceptions that come with it – in their respective neighborhoods. But they are close.
After many meetings, Hemingway said they’ve decided the larger village (approximately 10 houses) will serve primarily elderly women, women who have suffered abuse and women with non-school-aged children.
“The hope is to get the neighborhood supporting this effort,” he said.
The other micro-village, located in the Juniper Ridge area, would serve primarily single men and would have an area for people to park their vehicles, in which they might be living, in a safe place.
Central Oregon Villages has been working with SquareOne Villages out of Eugene to develop its plans for these villages, which will operate as communities under strong guidance.
For example, Hemingway said participants will not be allowed to consume alcohol or drugs on site. There are to be no overnight guests in the villages, the villages will be fenced and gated, and village residents will be expected to work shifts at the entry point to their community. Beyond that, Hemingway said villagers will have to agree to working with case managers to help them remove the barriers that have been preventing them from securing safe, affordable housing.
“There’s a lot of things that the villagers are expected to do to make the community work,” Hemingway said.
Stuart said it is exciting to see this project almost coming to fruition. It started after the church was bequeathed a piece of property from a long-time member who supported the church’s houseless outreach. The funds from the sale of that property enable Stuart, Hemingway and others to develop Central Oregon Villages and partner with other interested churches in the community as well.
There is maybe one other houseless shelter in Bend and Stuart said as inflation has increased, the population of people living in clustered homeless camps around town has grown. But it is not safe to be camping out during winter in Bend and two people have died in recent years from living on the streets.
“Housing, first, is one of the most important parts of getting people off the street,” Stuart said. “We’ve got to get people into safer conditions. Housing prices here are outrageous and there is very little affordable housing, if any.”
Stuart said it was Hemingway, a former attorney, who leveraged the money bequeathed to the church to apply for additional state grants to support this effort. With a $300,000 grant from the state of Oregon, Central Oregon Villages has ordered the houses and they are sitting on pallets in storage, waiting for the green light from the city of Bend.
And the community stewardship goes beyond Bend Church on this project, according to Hemingway.
Central Oregon Villages will partner with Heart of Oregon Corps’ YouthBuild program to construct the small houses as well as the carport/overhangs that will be attached to each dwelling, along with porch furniture.
Additionally, two-person picnic benches will be constructed and added to each house. Hemingway said these are being built by a non-profit in Portland where individuals being sheltered earn money for their carpentry skills.
Neither of the two sites where the villages will be located have electricity, so Hemingway said Central Oregon Villages is working with another non-profit in the state to attach solar panels to the homes in the villages.
Stuart is quick to credit Hemingway for getting the project across the finish line, while Hemingway is quick to credit Stuart creating an environment and congregation willing to take this risk.
It’s a lot of work, but Hemingway said it is the natural extension of what Bend Church has been doing. He does it because it is a matter of walking his faith. As someone who was once homeless 20 years ago, he knows what it is like to live that experience, which is why he has spent the last 20 years helping others facing similar situations.
“The clearest image of the face of Christ I’ve seen in the last 20 years is on the face of people I’ve seen experiencing homelessness,” Hemingway said.
Dear Greater NW,
I’ve had the pleasure of volunteering with Chuck Hemingway at Central Oregon Recovers in Bend, Oregon.
He has experience working with city officials and he loves helping people.
Ronald Scott La Rue