Central Oregon Veterans Outreach was founded in 2005 by members of the Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter #820 in Bend. They had a vision of an organization that could support veterans of every generation and followed through by interacting with the local homeless camps around Central Oregon. “This group’s first focus was to get these homeless veterans off the streets, fed and warmed up,” said COVO’s executive officer JW Terry, a thirty-year Navy veteran and lifetime member of Chapter #820. “While those original vets have drifted apart, I know they are all proud of what COVO has become.”
Connecting with local homeless populations evolved into the homeless outreach program, which reaches both vets and non-vets. “A lot of people don’t know, but around 50 percent of the people we assist are non-veterans,” Terry said.
“We still sometimes get people who say ‘this donation has to go to a veteran’ and things like that, and for those people, we have ways of making sure that specific donations go to certain places,” Terry said. “But over the years we’ve learned to not turn away anyone who needs our help.”
COVO regularly does outreach into homeless communities to build trusting relationships. This can be tough, as unfortunately in some instances, individuals have been seen taking advantage of these populations by inappropriately taking pictures and videos of them. “A lot of people don’t really understand that that tent is someone’s home,” said Ron Moore, a veteran who spent seven years living homeless who now works as an outreach specialist for COVO. “You can’t just go shoving a camera in someone’s home and expect them to be okay with it.”
Once trust is established, COVO evaluates each client on a case-by-case basis to match them with the right program. COVO offers food, tents and clothing, as well as other programs that promote finding affordable housing, stable jobs, medical assistance and support along the way. Specifically for veterans, COVO offers healthcare, as well as supportive services for veteran’s families. “That transition can be a hard one,” said Moore. “Without support along the way, it can be possible for someone, even with an apartment and a job, to fall back into homelessness.”
The employees at COVO, many of whom are veterans who have experienced homelessness, wish members of the community understood that this is a complex issue. They outlined factors such as high medical bills, mental health issues, addiction, social isolation, high housing costs, low wages, and more as causes that can contribute to homelessness. During the pandemic, these factors hit communities harder than ever.
The future of COVO is a bright one, full of collaboration with NeighborImpact and the City of Bend. Terry said that in the ideal future, COVO wouldn’t exist, but he’s sure it will. “We’re still dealing with issues the Romans dealt with thousands of years ago,” Terry said. “These issues aren’t going to go away anytime soon. But, neither are we.”
For information on how to get involved, visit covo-us.org.