Winter challenges the homeless in OR Central Oregon

Ice coats a tree above the Columbia River during recent winter storms. Severe winter weather creates challenges for those without homes.

Photo by Jesse Burkhardt.
Ice coats a tree above the Columbia River during recent winter storms. Severe winter weather creates challenges for those without homes.

BEND (AP) — The sounds of cars buzzing down U.S. Highway 97 echo inside Ron Moore's tent, where he sits on an army cot covered with a University of Oregon comforter.

It's about 60 degrees inside the three-person tent, which is insulated by five layers of tarps and heavyweight blankets. But outside, the ground is blanketed by two feet of snow and the temperature hovers just above freezing.

This is Moore's sixth winter living in a tent in south Bend. Over the years, he's figured out what it takes to survive outdoors in below-freezing temperatures. He has slept with canned food and water in his sleeping bag to prevent it from freezing, for example. When it's snowing, he wakes up in the middle of the night to clear his tent of snow to prevent it from collapsing.

Moore, 58, is one of hundreds of homeless people in the region who cope with dangerous winter temperatures outdoors — or face the deadly consequences. Right now, there are more than 2,000 homeless people living in Central Oregon, many of whom camp outside year-round.

Just last month, a homeless man from Sisters froze to death in his car. Cody Standiford, community liaison for Central Oregon Veterans Outreach, said a handful of people die from hypothermia in Central Oregon every year.

"Once your gear or your clothing gets wet, that's when you really start getting in danger," said Standiford, adding that several people have contacted him after getting frostbite this winter.

Often, people end up camping during the harsh winter months after experiencing a number of hardships including mental health problems, losing a job or failing to find an affordable rental in Bend's tight housing market.

One story

Moore's story is not unlike dozens of others. He grew up in Springfield but moved to Redmond after high school. For years, Moore moved around the country taking odd jobs, including hauling sugar beets and potatoes in Idaho. But he always ended up back in Central Oregon.

He took a job working at a Bend motel, but when it was sold he lost his job and the home that came with it. He decided to camp out for a couple of weeks, but a few weeks eventually turned into six years.

He struggled to find steady work and housing, which became nearly impossible when Moore started having heart problems. That led to open-heart surgery two years ago, from which he recovered in his tent. After that, he started volunteering at Central Oregon Veterans Outreach.

Five days a week, Moore passes out donated goods such as sleeping bags, warm clothing and canned food to people in need.

When people come in and ask for help, Moore offers advice on how to safely survive the winters. Insulating tents with cardboard, avoiding flat-top tents in snow and wearing dry socks at all times are among tips he shares.

"I know where they're coming from," said Moore. "I know what they need."

Moore gets done with his volunteer shift around 4 p.m. and catches a ride home. A large juniper tree shields Moore's tent, which is decorated with Oregon and American flags. Socks dangle from nearby a clothesline in the frigid January breeze.

When Moore is there, staying warm isn't just a matter of comfort — it's a matter of life and death.

Surviving the winter

Learning to survive has been a process of trial and error, Moore said. He's learned goose-down, heavyweight sleeping bags are necessary, and so is covering the tent with a rain tarp to ensure it's waterproof.

He's fashioned tarps to the juniper tree as windbreaks, which also serve as walls for a makeshift kitchen. A camp stove is propped up on wood pallets, which rest under shelves of canned food, a worn baseball cap and a photo of Moore from nearly a decade ago.

"It's a tent, but it's home," said Moore.

When it's below freezing, Moore avoids opening his tent and letting out heat, so he passes time by watching movies on a hand-held PlayStation and carving wood canes. The worst part of living out there isn't the cold — it's being lonely, and separated from friends and family, he said.

"There's times you sit there and there's nobody to talk to — especially in the winter time," said Moore. "Being alone out there, that's the hard part."

Fortunately for Moore, he isn't entirely alone. He shares his camp with Dave Duffey, a disabled U.S. Air Force veteran who's been at the site nearly 12 years.

Duffey, who's in his 50s, made a deal with the property owner to camp out as long as he's out of view of the highway. He lives in a 64-square-foot shed built out of 2-by-6 boards and plywood, which is painted camouflage and covered in jungle netting to disguise it from passing cars. A wind chime made from cast-iron pans and metal rods dangles from a ponderosa pine next to the shed.

Last week, Duffey sat barefoot and cross-legged in the shed while he explained how he built a centralized heating system using a propane tank. He taped Vitamin Water bottles together with purple and psychedelic-colored duct tape to serve as a pipe that leads to a furnace made from foil and battery-powered fans.

"It can get up to 75," Duffey said proudly.

While wearing a hat decorated with trinkets and figurines — much like Lt. Colonel Henry Blake's from 1970s TV series, "M.A.S.H." — Duffey said most of his days are spent crafting art and tools because back pain makes it hard to move around. However, he would rather brave the elements and avoid the restrictions that come with living in subsidized housing or shelters. There's too much drama there, he said.

"It's worth it to stay out here for the serenity and paradise."

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