Central Oregon

Helping the Unhoused Shelter in Place

April 30, 2020

Social distancing and sheltering in place are difficult if not impossible when you don’t have a place to live. Bethlehem Inn in Bend is adapting to meet new challenges that come with COVID-19 while continuing to house and assist individuals and families experiencing homelessness. Thanks to generous donor support, the organization continues to provide much-needed services and house up to 90 people while the stay-at-home order is in effect.

We asked Gwenn Wysling, executive director of Bethlehem Inn, about how the organization is adapting.

OCF: What did “normal” look like before COVID-19?

GW: Bethlehem Inn was created two decades ago by the community to serve the vulnerable population of people experiencing homelessness in Central Oregon. A large grass roots contingency of volunteers help prepare and serve nightly meals, work at the front desk, run our commercial laundry and sort clothing—totaling over 20,000 volunteer hours each year. Residents feel this love and share in the appreciation of the safe and trauma-informed environment. Residents are offered up to a 5-week stay to work toward self-sufficiency. Accountability and regular case management help keep residents on track and moving forward.

Bethlehem Inn does not do this work alone. With the help of over 70 partner agencies, residents are connected to available resources such as employment, income, healthcare, safety and housing to address the barriers that resulted in their needing assistance. The economic challenges and lack of affordable housing were already a difficult hurdle to overcome prior to COVID-19.

An example of the successes experienced by one of the families staying at the Inn is seen through Rachel’s story:

Escaping with teen children from an abusive marriage meant leaving a three-bedroom home and turning to rented rooms, couch surfing and camping by the Deschutes River. Through it all, Rachel kept her job and the kids stayed in school. A compassionate employer suggested Bethlehem Inn. Here, there was warmth and hope, safety and stability—stepping stones to a new life. There were rules, some strict for sure, but, in Rachel’s words, “…all focused on helping me make changes.” She was shown paths to find housing. There was unstinting staff support. The kids say over and over, “So many nice people…so many generous volunteers. They’re only there to help you.” Her son says, “As long as my family is with me, I will be okay.” He no longer worries about his family. Rachel and the kids are in safe, stable housing. Rachel is working. The children are in good schools. Three lives that had been unraveling are now knit together, stronger than ever as they move toward tomorrow.

OCF: How are things different now?

GW: Just one year ago, the Inn completed a major campus expansion to increase the accessibility and capacity which doubled the amount of families we can serve and increased the shelter space for individuals by 30%. Having the new shelter at this time has been a huge improvement in our ability to provide the safety and security for so many that were already at high risk due to health concerns, disabilities or age.

While some residents are still holding jobs, many are sheltering in place at the Inn, awaiting the economy and executive orders to reopen. Housing possibilities become even more distant without employment and income. Case management meetings are typically based on resident- centered goals and actions that they agree to take to move forward.  This level of service was “paused” when the state health and executive orders were put in place to provide the best preventative measures necessary to thwart the spread of the virus. Fortunately, they have a place to stay with three meals a day, basic provisions and a caring staff to help them through this time of uncertainty. Residents are still expected to follow standard rules and guidelines and in exchange are welcome to continue staying until the executive order is lifted and/or other stable housing options come available. While the Inn continues to serve the same population, we have made some procedural shifts that limit the number of new resident intakes on any given day.  This temporary shift helps to ensure the health and safety of current residents.

A major difference in the face of the organization is the absence of our dedicated and valued volunteers who want to be here, but must comply with the stay-at-home order. Volunteer shifts are now filled by staff. Volunteers stay in touch through Facebook, phone calls and emails until the “all clear” to come back. This keeps them safe and minimizes the spread of the virus.

OCF: What are you most concerned about?

GW: Life in a communal environment does not bode well for our residents, who share living quarters. First and foremost, we evaluate daily our response should someone were to test positive. Weekly calls with the leaders of the Homeless Leadership Coalition (HLC) and Emergency Management Center continually strategize on alternative locations for individuals who contract the virus and ensure all protective measures are in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

As the length of the “stay home” order extends, residents get restless and fret over the many unknowns. We continue to work with them to make sure they get both their physical and behavioral health needs met. Even as hard as our agency works to provide a dependable and stable setting, times of crisis can trigger mental health challenges or unhealthy dependencies for a few of our residents. It’s encouraging that we see residents helping and comforting one another. Two of our residents are recent amputees – one within the last week. Both are receiving necessary support from appropriate agencies as well as from the community of residents that reach out to care for a friend and neighbor here at the shelter.

OCF: How has Bethlehem Inn adjusted shelter policies to accommodate social distancing?

GW: The operational implications are like building the boat while you are sailing. Based on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidance, Bethlehem Inn maintains appropriate distancing. This is easy in our family units with one household per room. In our Next Steps program for individuals, the communal dormitory environment used to accommodate up to six people per room in normal times has been temporarily downsized to three per room using appropriate distancing measures. We are now serving meals in our dining rooms in shifts to uphold physical distance. Residents are understanding of the need to serve them one at a time.

OCF: How are you putting COVID relief funding to work?

GW: As the COVID-19 crisis escalates, we’ve reached our full CDC-compliant capacity of about 90 people, which is less than our normal full capacity of 140.

Central Oregon’s economy strongly relies on tourism and service industries. We expect the toll to be enormous as people in these sectors and others find themselves homeless and in personal crisis, many for the first time.

Given the size, scale and unknown duration of the COVID-19 impact, it is clear the Inn’s financial capacity will be overwhelmed without emergency funding. Oregon Community Foundation has helped tremendously with a grant of $50,000 along with additional generous donor advised funds grants, The Healy Foundation awarded $15,000 and The M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust recently awarded a $25,000 grant. Individual donors are also demonstrating their compassion through smaller gifts.

OCF: What would you like people to know about housing, COVID and homelessness?

GW: The Inn continues to adjust to new conditions and establish steady funding streams for continuing to help vulnerable families and individuals in transition from homelessness to stability. The need will be great; we must be ready.

For the past 20 years ago, the goal of Bethlehem Inn has been to serve as a light of hope in Central Oregon. The generosity and compassionate partnership demonstrated by OCF is a shining example that will inspire our community to partner with us in our mission of transformation.