Leading a contemplative walk through Sisters Community Labyrinth, housing advocate Mandee Seeley honored people who died while unhoused in Sisters Country. photo by TL Brown
Leading a contemplative walk through Sisters Community Labyrinth, housing advocate Mandee Seeley honored people who died while unhoused in Sisters Country. photo by TL Brown
Living unsheltered in Sisters Country can be difficult, cold, and even deadly. On December 21, Mandee Seeley honored those who have died.

Seeley was inspired by an event held in Bend. According to organizers of The Longest Night, twice as many people in Central Oregon are homeless today as there were in 2013.

“Even though we haven’t lost anyone here in Sisters this year, we have in the past, so I wanted to honor them in their own community,” said Seeley.

While walking Sisters Community Labyrinth, Seeley thought about “the two folks we’ve lost since I moved here in 2016… even one life is too many.” They might still be alive, she noted, “if they’d had a safe, warm place to call home.”

The walk was unofficial, with the annual labyrinth Solstice gathering canceled due to COVID-19. Last year’s winter solstice walk featured ceremonial elements, a toasty fire, and nearly 50 celebrants. This year, Seeley and her family simply walked the labyrinth with just a few masked friends and supporters.

Afterward, Seeley’s daughter said in a voice full of longing, “I wish we could have a house. I don’t care if it’s in the middle of the wilderness!”

She said she was tired of sharing a small bed with her little brother.

The Seeley family stumbled onto Sisters Country over four years ago. They were experienced “full-timers” making their way to Oregon from Florida.

Full-timing refers to living in an RV or trailer — sometimes a passenger vehicle — as one’s primary home, often while traveling. Some choose this lifestyle to explore the country, gain access to nature, and chase good weather year-round. Others wind up “living the dream” when they’re down on their luck. Perhaps their city gentrifies so much it becomes unaffordable and just doesn’t feel like home anymore.

The theme pops up regularly in popular culture, from vagabond cowboys in classic Westerns to the new film “Nomadland,” which stars Oscar winner Frances McDormand as a full-timer. A Facebook group for “Fulltime Families” helps homeschooling travelers share RV advice and meet up at historical sites. A popular variation on the theme is #VanLife.

Camping in their tent outside Sisters, the Seeley family came to love the natural wonders of Deschutes National Forest and the deep sense of community in town. Since then, with help from individuals and from organizations including Neighbor Impact, the family has alternated between being housed and homeless.

Seeley said that Sisters showed her what community means. On the East Coast, she never experienced civic and community engagement, and never got involved. Here, she felt welcomed and saw that she could make a positive impact. She began to volunteer, got a job at a local community organization, and initiated a biannual forest cleanup day.

Today, Seeley coordinates the quarterly Houseless Networking Meeting in Sisters and is a member of the statewide Residents Organizing for Change.

With a Central Oregon housing crisis in full tilt, the family recently planned a move closer to family in Florida. They found, however, that they didn’t want to leave their friends and community here. Reasonably priced housing was hard to find in Florida, too.

What could the housed people of Sisters Country better understand about homeless people here?

“That we are all human beings and deserve to be treated as such,” Seeley explained. “It’s horrible the way some of our folks are treated simply because they don’t have a traditional house.

“We all got here for different reasons and have a different story,” she said. “I just wish people would try to understand instead of judging right away.”

As in other locales, homeless people in Sisters are sometimes subjected to condescension, judgmental attitudes, and even harassment. Some Sisters residents, on the other hand, show compassion and offer practical help. Organizations ranging from churches to Kiwanis to Family Action Network (FAN) provide assistance.

Closed this year due to the pandemic, a temporary shelter was formed in 2016 after a local McDonald’s employee died of hypothermia during a cold night. He was sleeping in his car, his only form of housing. Seeley served on the Sisters Cold Weather Shelter committee from the beginning.

She and her husband, Ryan, who were housed at that time, volunteered at the shelter itself. They have also helped out other forest-dwelling, unhoused folks in the area, a population that includes children and the elderly.

“I consider myself a housing advocate,” said Seeley, who won a scholarship to attend the National Conference on Ending Homelessness in Washington, D.C. “Without housing, everything else becomes more difficult. Housing is a right. Every one of us deserve a safe, warm place to sleep at night so we can deal with anything else that pops up without the added stress.”

As the housing crisis goes on, Seeley plans to do her labyrinth walk again. “It’s a national event and this is the 30th anniversary,” she said. “I will be doing it every year moving forward.”