Homeless camps dot Central Oregon

Homeless camps dot Central Oregon
In this Sept. 5, 2013 photo, Mike Miller, of Bend, Ore., poses for a photo at a transient campsite, where he once spent several nights at during a year of living and camping outside. "This is survival for some people. I know it was for me," Miller said. (AP Photo/The Bulletin, Joe Kline)

BEND, Ore. (AP) — Mike Miller had hit bottom.

Roughly eight years ago, he and a brother from San Jose, Calif., moved to a house in Bend for work. About two years later, Miller lost his job and took up drinking. His brother left for Nevada, and Miller was left alone.

Before he knew it, he was scouting secluded places to put up a tent to replace his lost home.

"I didn't want to camp out," Miller said. "It's a part of my life I didn't think I would go through. But, the things I was doing and the choices I made brought me here."

Usually unseen or overlooked, homeless camps around Bend provide a temporary home for scores of homeless people. The camps may appear, be vacated and be re-established in a matter of days, according to Miller and others who've worked with or policed the homeless. Or they may quietly persist for months. They range from one person in one tent to several people in upward of 10 tents, according to Bend Police spokesman Lt. Chris Carney.

Nearly 2,200 people are experiencing homelessness in Central Oregon, according to the annual point-in-time count conducted in January by the Homeless Leadership Coalition. Of those 2,200 people, Miller feels most are down on their luck, just as he was.

But he knows that's not everybody. Some choose to live that way, he said. "I was never threatened. But I know it does happen out there. I had one guy who watched my back as I watched his. It's about surviving."

Carney said the department deals with homeless camps all around Bend. For example, at least six camps lie within a five-mile radius of The Bethlehem Inn, a homeless shelter on U.S. Highway 97 in north Bend, according to managing director Chris Clouart. Most campers keep to themselves and hide from view, but sometimes events propel them into the forefront of public attention.

Saturday, Bend Police reported an attempted rape at a transient camp on Northeast Fourth Street. An alleged witness at the camp, Don Wichmann, performed a rare act and reported the incident to police. As a result, Jacob Schoenborn was held in Deschutes County jail on suspicion of first-degree rape, fourth-degree assault and two counts of first-degree sexual abuse.

"Most of the time, these people are camping because they want to be left alone," said Carney. "Getting them to report incidents is always a tough thing to do."

Crimes at these camps are not infrequent, Carney said. But they aren't everything the camps are about. A fire in July that charred 4 acres in east Bend started with a homeless campfire. Two people — a mother and daughter — were cited in that incident. In addition, Carney said, stabbings and a shooting have occurred at homeless camps around the city within the past five years.

"It's difficult to distinguish between the types of people who are out there," he said. "Most of the people in these camps are people down on their luck — they can't afford housing or something. But there are the others who choose that lifestyle and can sometimes cause problems."

Residential camping in city limits is illegal, according to Bend affordable housing manager Jim Long. His department attempts to work with local nonprofits and businesses to find affordable housing for those whose income was diminished or demolished after the recession.

"Most people are one or two paychecks from tragedy anyway," Long said. "If there's 100 homeless people, there are 100 different stories. I don't have rose-colored glasses — they aren't all saints. But they aren't all evil, either."

He said the city attempts to move homeless camps as humanely as possible. Before calling the police, Long said, he would call the Central Oregon Veterans Organization or the Deschutes County Mental Health division in order to give the affected homeless a warning. If COVO and Deschutes County are unsuccessful, the police are called in.

"As a police department, we just go in there and tell them they have to camp outside of the city," Carney said. "They typically pick up and move to a new spot. It's about all we can do; we don't have the time or resources to go out and force these people to move."

Clouart said community calls to clean up homeless camps are routine following violent incidents like the one Saturday.

"It won't solve anything," Clouart said. "You're just moving them from one place to another. To fix it, we need to become a society and a culture that doesn't judge these people."

Organizations around Bend attempt to keep judgment out of rehabilitation. The Shepherd's House, a homeless men's support shelter, offers a bed, food and shelter to applicants who are clean and sober. In emergency situations, it offers the same services to men for seven days. For those who need camping supplies, the shelter may provide them as well.

The Bethlehem Inn is open to men and women, offering the same "get back on your feet" services. COVO started a homeless outreach program, donating camping and survival supplies to ex-military men in need. "Feed the Hungry" hosts a breakfast and lunch at Bend's Community Center every Sunday, and the center is getting ready to hand out survival gear to the "Keep Them Warm" program again.

Miller said he got so comfortable with camping that he was able to fashion a shower in his tent so he didn't have to interact with people at camp showers. He said he notices others have taken up residence at the sites where he once camped.

"Some people just stay in that mindset of camping," he said. "Some don't want to stop doing that. I just realized that life wasn't for me, and I was ready for a change."

Miller, now 27 months free of alcohol, has lived at The Shepherd's House for almost a year. He's getting ready to move to Portland soon for an internship with a religious homeless-assistance organization and hopes to go to school later for addiction studies. Miller said he hopes to use his future education to help others in his former position, paying forward the help he received.

But no matter what, he won't forget his time in the tent.

"You just learn how to blend in," he said. "In fact, at one point, you get comfortable blending in. Once you get that comfortable, you don't have a desire to stop blending in. And, by then, you've run out of options to get out."


Information from: The Bulletin, http://www.bendbulletin.com

Copyright 2013 The Associated Press