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Regional Interests

2 men found dead at Bend houseless camp, as city declares heat-related state of emergency

An outdoor cooling station serves people living along Hunnell Road during a heat wave in Bend on June 28, 2021.
An outdoor cooling station serves people living along Hunnell Road during a heat wave in Bend on June 28, 2021.

Over the weekend, two men were found dead along the same stretch of road used by unhoused campers in Bend. The causes of the deaths could not be confirmed, but service providers for the unhoused community suspect heat may have played a role.

The deaths came as Bend city officials declared a state of emergency in response to the heat wave across the Northwest.

Bend Police officers responded Sunday to two separate reports of “unattended deaths” on Hunnell Road, according to a department spokesperson. The road is home to scores of people living without running water or power, in recreational vehicles, tents or under tarps. In a Monday statement, Bend Police Lt. Juli McConkey said suspicious criminal activity was not suspected in either death, and the department would not be providing further details.

The last names and ages of the deceased men could not immediately be confirmed. Witnesses described one of the men as elderly, and said he went by Joe. Joe used a wheelchair, and reportedly was living without shelter.

Another man, who went by Lonnie, was found Sunday afternoon in an un-airconditioned RV, according to a witness at the scene.

Luke Richter said he was volunteering to support an outdoor cooling shelter on Hunnell Road Sunday afternoon when someone discovered a body inside a camper. Richter said he stepped into the trailer to see if there was anything he could do.

“It was very obviously too late. It was basically a microwave in there,” Richter said.

Richter said half an hour later, he and other volunteers took another Hunnell resident to the hospital with symptoms of heat-related illness.

By Monday morning, aid to the Hunnell Road site had grown, said Colleen Thomas, homeless services coordinator at Deschutes County Behavioral Health. As temperatures were forecast to climb to 107 degrees, the City of Bend provided tents with misters, she said.

“It’s a huge collective group right now,” she said. “We are making sure folks have access to water, electrolytes, food and sunscreen.”

Thomas estimates between 80 and 100 people live on Hunnell Road. There are indoor emergency cooling shelters now available in Bend, Redmond, Madras and Prineville. But, barriers can keep people from taking refuge at official sites, she said

“Whether that is fear of someone stealing their things or … of leaving the safety and security of places that they call home,” Thomas said. “People here really rely on one another and it’s the family that they create. There’s this sense of not wanting to leave anybody behind.”

Access to transportation is also a challenge, said Morgan Schmidt, a pastor with First Presbyterian Church in Bend. The church is one of several places in Bend hosting shelters during day time hours this week.

Schmidt said she met one of the men who died over the weekend, when he stayed at the church to escape wildfire smoke last year.

“Joe was a sweetheart,” she said. “It was just clear that life was not kind to Joe and that he persevered through more than any person should ever have to.”

Schmidt said whether or not heat was the sole cause in either death, the losses of life are a call to action.

“Everybody deserves to be in a safe, stable place and to receive care. This continues, in a very somber way, to highlight the pain our community has for safe, stable, and ongoing housing of all kinds.”

Daily high temperatures in Bend are forecast to remain at or near 100 degrees through Friday.

City officials on Monday declared a local state of emergency related to the heat.

“The emergency order includes mobilizing city resources to provide support services to unhoused community members and the immediate ban on the use of all fireworks — legal or illegal — within the city of Bend,” the city said in a statement.

The emergency will remain in effect through July 9. The city said even though it was banning fireworks through the Fourth of July holiday, professional fireworks shows already scheduled in the city would proceed.

Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting