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As the temperature across Multnomah County begins to drop, the need for emergency shelter space for those living outside is on the rise.
Due to COVID-19’s added constraints, however, locations that local officials used to rely on to offer extra shelter during the winter months are suddenly off the table. Facing a shortage of space for 300 additional winter shelter beds, local government has turned to the public for help.
“We’re asking the public for leads on spaces… private and public, to be used as shelter,” said Multnomah County Commissioner Deborah Kafoury during a Friday press conference.
In recent years, the region’s Joint Office of Homeless Services (JOHS, a collaboration between the county and City of Portland) has relied on local businesses and nonprofits—like Imago Dei and the Sunrise Center—to offer their buildings as temporary shelter space during periods of severe winter weather. On Friday, Kafoury said those spaces aren’t large enough to ensure safe distancing between shelter beds to prevent the spread of COVID-19 while indoors.
“As it stands right now, because of COVID-19, we cannot guarantee that everyone who needs it can have shelter on any night of the year,” said Kafoury during a Friday press conference.
Unlike standard shelters, these emergency spaces will only be needed on nights that meet certain severe weather standards, like when temperatures drop below freezing or forecasters predict an inch or more of snow. These additional 300 winter beds would be designated as “no turn-away,” meaning the shelter would operate without restrictions for guests (such as male-only, drug-free, or no pets).
Portland City Commissioner Dan Ryan, whose new City Hall portfolio includes JOHS, said large ballrooms, gyms, or even the single floor of an office building could suffice—ideally if they’re ADA accessible and located close to homeless services or public transit. These spaces would be operated by Transition Projects and trained volunteers, and be heavily sanitized before opening up to houseless guests.
Kafoury and others, including Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler, said that they’ve been asking community partners about potential spaces, but have yet to secure a location. Asked about using the expansive Oregon Convention Center for this need, Kafoury said she’s in talks with Metro about using their building, but they hadn’t reached a decision. While the Convention Center has been operating a temporary shelter for houseless Portlanders during the pandemic, it’s slated to end that service within the week.
The new hunt for extra winter shelter locations is independent of the ongoing work to expand regular shelter spaces to meet COVID-19’s physical distancing criteria. Southeast Portland’s Mt. Scott Community Center and North Portland’s Charles Jordan Community Center, which served as temporary shelters in the spring, are both re-opening as temporary shelters for the next several months.
Earlier this week, Wheeler announced the opening of a third temporary shelter: Old Town’s now-shuttered Greyhound Station. The space will offer 100 shelter beds for elderly people who currently reside in the Old Town area, and is expected to remain open until March 2021.
JOHS has also been transitioning entire motels into shelters for houseless people who are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19. On October 14, JOHS opened its fifth “motel shelter” for at-risk members of the homeless community. Located in North Portland, the newest motel shelter is reserved solely for Black Portlanders experiencing homelessness.
Know of a space that can safely accommodate people on cold winter nights? Email JOHS. Want to volunteer to staff these emergency shelters (and other shelters)? Register for an orientation through Transition Projects. Want to donate items to help your houseless neighbors stay warm and safe this winter? Check out this extensive list of needs and links to online wish lists. Need help finding a safe place to stay? Head to 211info or call 211.