'We're just houseless': High rents in Oregon towns fuel some to seek refuge on public lands

Gerald "Buddy" Blair's home is a couple of trailers and three cars parked at a dispersed campsite with his family just outside Sisters in Central Oregon's Deschutes National Forest.

Blair and his wife, Adrian, spend their days working at the Sno Cap Drive In, a popular hamburger restaurant in the touristy town tucked below the Three Sisters mountains. After work, the couple head to their home hidden among towering ponderosa pine trees, where they live with a 4-year-old boy, a 17-year-old boy and a blue heeler named Namu.

The family showers at a park in town - four minutes for 25 cents. They use the port-a-potties at a campground down the road for bathrooms.

Buddy Blair, left, takes his 4-year-old stepson, Elloey Houlden, into his arms from his wife, Adrian Blair, during an after-school visit to the Sno Cap Drive In where the couple work.
Buddy Blair, left, takes his 4-year-old stepson, Elloey Houlden, into his arms from his wife, Adrian Blair, during an after-school visit to the Sno Cap Drive In where the couple work.  

Blair, 66, said he had never been homeless before he moved to the area a year ago.

He doesn't mind the lifestyle. Sure, the kids would rather they had a house, but with home prices and rent out of reach, living in the forest isn't a bad backup.

"I don't know how many people wouldn't love to look out in their backyard and see trees and forest land," Blair said.

As Oregon's housing crisis spills from urban centers onto forest lands, what it means to be homeless is changing.

Blair and his pod of campers are among the growing number of Oregonians finding a home in the forest.

Blair's family is not alone. Other residents in the campsite cluster work in Sisters but can't afford to live there. One, a woman who lives in a tent, also works at Sno Cap. A few hills over is another one of Blair's coworkers. While numbers fluctuate, up to 100 long-term campsites can surround Sisters, according to Jeremy Fields, a forest protection officer in the Sisters Ranger District.

"I don't consider myself homeless," Blair said. "We're just houseless, right? We're working houseless."

Buddy Blair visits the campsite in the forest near Sisters that he and his family call home.
Buddy Blair visits the campsite in the forest near Sisters that he and his family call home.  

A growing part of Oregon's population

Anecdotal evidence from U.S. Forest Service staff and data from recent studies suggest long-term forest dwellers like Blair and his family are increasingly common.

As climbing rents and limited social support networks send lower-income Oregonians searching for refuge on public lands, many camp illegally for long periods, sometimes utilizing public transportation to regions where metropolitan areas touch national forests.

While recreational campers also leave trash behind, unhoused forest dwellers often lack the means to clean up after themselves, leaving the Forest Service to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars removing their garbage in some areas.

Buddy Blair drives home to his family
Buddy Blair drives home to his family's campsite in the forest outside Sisters with a picture of his 4-year-old stepson Elloey Houlden on the dash.  

The land is often patrolled by Forest Service employees, who typically have backgrounds in forestry or fish, not social work.

Blair, his family, and other campers indefinitely living on forest land are technically breaking the law. The Forest Service restricts recreational camping to 14 days. But law enforcement officers can do little to remove people, even when they're damaging the forest's natural resources.

"We don't necessarily have the tools to deal with these social situations," said Darren Cross, a district ranger in the McKenzie River Ranger District of the Willamette National Forest. "The people that work here went to forestry school. No one has this in their background."

Non-recreational camping - the term the Forest Service uses to describe people in Blair's situation - is not new. It refers to people who camp in a national forest for longer than the designated limit, which in the Deschutes and most Oregon national forests is 14 days within a 30-day period. Non-recreational campers often reside there indefinitely and typically are chronically or temporarily homeless.

Buddy Blair, center, joins a “Houseless in Sisters” Town Hall in Sisters with Deschutes County Sheriff
Buddy Blair, center, joins a “Houseless in Sisters” Town Hall in Sisters with Deschutes County Sheriff's Office Lt.  

The Forest Service has documented economic migrants and environmental refugees living in U.S. national forests since the Dust Bowl in the 1930s.

In Oregon, it had become so prevalent that in the 1990s, the Forest Service set up a campground in the Umpqua National Forest southeast of Eugene specifically for unhoused campers.

The campground was a pilot project, and at one point had as many as 30 people living there, according to a 2012 University of Oregon study. While the project was mostly successful, it eventually collapsed after the social service agency running the program pulled out.

Since then, comprehensive research on the effects and demographics of non-recreational campers has been sparse.

A 2015 survey conducted by the Pacific Northwest Research Station - a branch of the Forest Service's Research and Development Division - found 75% of rangers reported encountering non-recreational campers at least once a month. In a subsequent survey of Forest Service staff in Oregon and Washington conducted in 2021, 53% of respondents said the amount of time they'd spent addressing homelessness had increased since the year before.

Across all regions, transient retirees - or elderly individuals living in campers or RVs - represented the most frequent category of non-recreational campers.

Rising rents fuel housing, homelessness crisis

In Sisters and Bend, Central Oregon's largest and most expensive city, much of the local economy is driven by tourism, with the service industry a major employer.

But with rents rising as out-of-state residents have flooded the region, many residents who work in the service industry can no longer afford to live there. Today, average rents in Sisters range from $1,400 for a one-bedroom house, to more than $2,500 for a three-bedroom - largely out of range for many living on minimum wage.

With housing stocks in Central Oregon struggling to keep up with growing populations, some lower-income residents would rather try their luck in the forest than contend with the tight housing market.

"It's going to take at least two paychecks just to pay rent, and then you're not going to have anything left for food or anything else," Blair said.

Blair and his wife have steady jobs, so they don't qualify for the kind of low-income assistance that would make renting in town doable. They make too much to qualify for food stamps, but not enough to pay rent on a house in Sisters and still be able to afford utilities and groceries.

"We're kind of stuck," he said.

Things could be worse. Living in the forest rent-free, his family has some financial wiggle-room. Blair can afford to replace his prosthetic foot, a $4,000 expense incurred from complications with a bout of childhood cancer.

He says he's satisfied with his life, generally.

"I feel pretty damn fortunate to be where I'm at," Blair said.

Adrian Blair counts tip money at the end of her shift at the Sno Cap Drive In in Sisters.
Adrian Blair counts tip money at the end of her shift at the Sno Cap Drive In in Sisters.  

Impact on forest health

Fields spends much of his time as a forest protection officer traversing the 10-mile radius around Sisters looking for natural resource damage. In doing so, he has encountered dozens of dispersed campsites housing non-recreational campers, whose locations he keeps track of using GPS data. Though numbers are rough at best, he estimates at its peak, the area hosts up to 100 non-recreational campsites.

Most of the people Fields interacts with have jobs in Sisters, he said.

Their stories are diverse. Some have chosen to live in the forest to avoid exorbitant rent, while others have drifted in and out of homelessness for most of their lives. Some suffer from severe mental health and substance abuse disorders. Many are lower-income families going through tough times.

"It's all demographics, all races, all different circumstances," Fields said. "It's a good snapshot of the United States."

Fields, who's lived in Central Oregon for the past 17 years and has worked for the Forest Service for 24, said he tries to avoid taking an enforcement-only approach. Because national forests are public lands, unarmed forest protection officers cannot forcibly remove people from the forest or arrest them for overstaying the 14-day limit.

Fields said he's primarily concerned with protecting forest health and preventing trash buildup at campsites, which can be one of the natural consequences of prolonged camping in a single spot. While any human presence in the forest - recreational or otherwise - can cause ecological damage, excessive non-recreational camping can pose a unique challenge as unhoused campers often lack resources to properly dispose of their waste.

The unpredictability of dispersed camping compared to other forms of camping means that sensitive vegetation and wildlife has less of a chance to adapt, said Oregon State University recreational ecologist Ashley D'Antonio. This adds unnecessary strain to vulnerable wildlife populations and makes it difficult to manage conservation.

"If something's predictable, the wildlife can adjust to that," D'Antonio said. "But if you suddenly have camping where you've never had camping before, you don't know how the wildlife is going to respond."

Buses to the woods

In the Willamette National Forest, across the Cascades from the Deschutes, the forest's proximity to Eugene and direct access to bus lines makes it a popular destination for forest dwellers.

The vast, 1.6 million acre Willamette National Forest brushes up against the 380,000-person Eugene metropolitan area. According to a recent report by the Pacific Northwest Research Station, the Forest Service spends about $250,000 per year cleaning up after non-recreational campers in the Willamette.

In the McKenzie River corridor east of Eugene, Lane Transit District buses take travelers from any of the eight stops around Eugene to a remote ranger station tucked deep into the forest. The route follows a succession of unincorporated communities that dot the river's banks.

This direct access to the city makes the McKenzie area a popular destination for non-recreational campers, said Darren Cross, McKenzie River District Ranger. According to Cross, the most trafficked areas for dispersed and non-recreational camping are typically along the bus route.

Most often, when unhoused travelers come to the Willamette intending to live in the forest, they bring all their belongings, which usually get left in the forest when they decide to leave, Cross said.

Without an easy way to properly dispose of waste, campers accumulate more stuff over time, making use of the bus line to pick up supplies in town. Many campsites aren't discovered by the Forest Service for months, meaning that when they are, enough items have been accumulated the agency has to arrange a cleanup.

Even when the trash is overwhelming, Cross said it's useless to issue fines to people who probably can't pay them. Unless there's a criminal offense, the most officers can do is issue tickets. Few forest dwellers - especially those who are chronically homeless - have the resources to pay the fines, let alone show up to court.

"The more egregious the littering and waste is, the more urgent it is to get people to move on," he said. "But it doesn't really change the fact that they can't pay anything."

Harm-reduction approach leads to trust

In the Deschutes, Fields tries to avoid this problem by working with people to point them to where they can dispose of trash. He does what he can to help transition them to a better housing situation. Often, he'll hand out information about local organizations serving the unhoused, and sometimes bring outreach workers to the forest camps who have the connections and training to serve their needs.

This harm-reduction approach, which acknowledges there's little the Forest Service can do to stop people from living in the forest, has led to relationships built on trust between Fields and the people he finds in the woods, he said.

"Instead of enforcing, my goal is to empower people," Fields said. "They actually ask me sometimes, 'How's my camp? Does it look clean?'"

Part of what makes addressing the needs of non-recreational campers so difficult is their diverse motivations for deciding to live in the forest, said James Ewell, an outreach coordinator with the Lane County Human Services Division.

Grouping them into the same category as the urban unhoused would inaccurately represent the demographic, Ewell said. Many of the forest-dwellers in rural Lane County are there by choice, living independently and actively avoiding interactions with others. An inability to access shelter for one reason or another is different than making the lifestyle choice to live off-grid, he said.

"If you took 100 people that were living in the woods across Lane County and asked them why they're living in the woods, you'd probably hear 100 different reasons," Ewell said.

Back in Sisters, Blair said living in the forest has had its ups and downs. He wishes he had a better trailer, but for the most part, he says he feels lucky he doesn't have to experience life on the streets. Having spent his youth in Seattle, Blair is no stranger to the scenes of poverty common on the streets of the Northwest's biggest cities.

"It's a lot easier being happy out in the forest," he said. "I wouldn't want to be in town. I can see how people could get depressed, living like that."

Buddy Blair visits the public restrooms at a park in downtown Sisters that he and his family use to shower during the work week.
Buddy Blair visits the public restrooms at a park in downtown Sisters that he and his family use to shower during the work week.  

Lack of support

With help from the local branch of Habitat for Humanity, Blair and his family hope to soon get a permanent roof over their heads. They've applied for a house currently under construction by the Sisters Habitat for Humanity branch. It will likely be months before they can leave the forest for good.

Blair's 17-year-old stepson is currently enrolled in YouthBuild, a federally administered program that provides at-risk youths with professional development opportunities. He was picked on frequently as a high school student, so he's since dropped out, instead pursuing a GED through the YouthBuild program.

But while Blair's family has been lucky, Sisters has a critical lack of services for its unhoused population. Despite the city's tourism and high rents, it struggles to fund even the most basic of homeless services.

Sharlene Weed is the executive director of the Sisters branch of Habitat for Humanity, where she coordinates subsidized affordable housing projects and works to help unhoused residents get on housing waiting lists. She also sits on Sisters Cold Weather Shelter's board, which is the area's only low-barrier homeless shelter.

The shelter can't afford a permanent facility. Instead, their staff of volunteers operates out of a rotating list of local churches. When winter temperatures dip below freezing, the staff - many of whom have local unhoused people's numbers saved on their phones - invite them to come have a hot meal and spend the night at whichever church has volunteered its space. This past winter, the Cold Weather Shelter served about 30 people total, Weed said, with an average of six to 10 showing up each night.

The shelter does not receive city funding and relies on donations and the occasional grant. Some years, the shelter can't find a church to host them when the cold weather hits.

"I don't think it's OK for our community to have people living without essentials, without a roof over their heads, without running water, without a bathroom," Weed said. "It feels like our society has gone astray."

Cole Sinanian is a journalist in Boston. He has a degree in journalism from the University of Oregon, and has written for publications like Eugene Weekly, the Oregon Capital Chronicle, Columbia Insight and more. Reach him at colersin@gmail.com

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Housing crisis drive some Oregonians to live in national forests


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