February 12: The latest on severe weather shelters, vaccines and the eviction moratorium

Dear friends and neighbors,

With yesterday’s arrival of our first winter storm of the season, the Joint Office of Homeless Services has opened severe weather shelters and warming spaces to protect our neighbors surviving outside. Based on the forecasts, we expect to keep them open through the weekend. 

Although the Joint Office has opened severe weather shelters during stretches of inclement weather for years, the COVID-19 pandemic has created additional safety and capacity challenges. We’ve adjusted our spaces and adapted our protocols in a number of ways to help keep everyone as safe as possible from both the cold and COVID-19. Between our three severe weather sites at the Oregon Convention Center (965 NE 1st), the Metro Garage (578 NE Irving) and our new Arbor Lodge shelter (1952 N Lombard), nearly 330 more people are able to find warmth and safety out of the inclement weather over the next several days.

Warming spaces, where people can come in to warm up, and receive gear and survival kits, are open at the Metro Garage site and Sunrise Center in east County (18901 E Burnside). People who wish to sleep in a shelter can receive MAX tickets or arrange a cab ride from the Sunrise Center.

Outreach workers have also worked tirelessly this past week to connect people living outside to these shelters, while also distributing winter gear. As of just Tuesday, they had already given out at least 600 blankets, 900 sleeping bags, 2,000 hand warmers and 4,000 pieces of cold weather clothing; much more has been distributed since.

Chair Kafoury at Oregon Convention Center severe weather shelter
On Wednesday, I visited the severe weather shelter at the Oregon Convention Center to see firsthand how the Joint Office was preparing to implement the safety measures that will help keep our shelter guests as safe as possible from both the cold and COVID
Right now, our greatest need is for community members to volunteer to help work shifts at all three severe weather shelters. We also need help staffing overnight shifts at the Metro Garage, as well as daytime shifts at the Oregon Convention Center. If you are interested in volunteering, please review this call for volunteers to learn more and sign up as soon as you can.

If you’re unable to volunteer, you can still help our community’s effort to care for our neighbors living outside by sharing information about severe weather shelters, looking out for people living outside, or donating much-needed cold weather gear.

Bookmark the County’s winter shelter webpage, as well as 211’s severe weather page, to keep up with the latest information about severe weather resources.

The County’s Role in the Vaccine Rollout

News of safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines that greatly reduce the risk of severe illness and death from COVID-19 brought a tantalizing ray of hope when they were first announced. But the shortage of vaccines and information about how they are allocated by the State have left many people confused, frustrated and anxious. However, I want to use this space to share how Multnomah County and our Public Health division fit into the State’s overall vaccination rollout. 

All of Oregon’s vaccines come from the federal government. Then, Gov. Kate Brown’s Office determines which groups of people are eligible for vaccines, and the Oregon Health Authority (OHA) allocates how many vaccine doses each county will receive based on the governor’s priorities. The tri-county metro region is treated as a single unit, and the vast majority of vaccine doses are allocated to a regional healthcare collaborative composed of Legacy Health, Providence, OHSU and Kaiser Permanente, which then distribute those through mass vaccination clinics hosted at the Oregon Convention Center and Portland International Airport. A much smaller allotment is provided to each county’s Local Public Health Authority to administer to those who are harder to reach and at greatest risk.

So while the State determines prioritization and how many our region receives, Multnomah County takes on numerous downstream roles, largely in ways that fill in the gaps of our healthcare system.

First, in our role as the Local Public Health Authority, Multnomah County administers the small number of doses we do receive to immunize eligible community members who are at highest risk of infection, serious illness and death from COVID-19, and who face additional barriers to receiving the vaccine. In the most recent allocation week, Multnomah County focused on getting the 1,600 doses we received to vulnerable seniors; people in Phase 1A from populations who, data show, are disproportionately being hospitalized and dying of this virus; and residents of adult foster homes, group homes for adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities, and behavioral health homes.

We also worked to reach Phase 1A frontline health workers, including medical interpreters and community health workers who are not directly associated with any of the major health systems. Further, Public Health is using data on disease rates to identify and reach vaccine-eligible people in communities where frontline work, multigenerational housing, languages other than English, systemic racism and other challenges put people at greater risk of illness and death.

Latino Network employee receiving vaccine
In mid January, Multnomah County Public Health held a vaccination clinic for essential workers who aren’t directly employed by the County, including shelter workers.
Multnomah County also acts in a safety net role, funding and providing wraparound social safety net services for at-risk families, as well as providing care to people who aren’t connected to the mainstream healthcare system. Our Public Health division also continues to perform regular and extensive culturally responsive health education outreach to communities that don’t have ready access to information about vaccines or who demonstrate vaccine hesitancy.

The County plays an advocacy role, as well. While the State continues to set the parameters of vaccine recipients, we are using data and an equity lens to advocate to OHA and the healthcare systems to increase access for those most at risk of disease and death. And lastly, the County takes on an assurance role, helping verify to the State that the rollout of vaccines in our community is actually being implemented in the manner prioritized by OHA.

Vaccinations haven’t happened as quickly or as smoothly as we hoped. And although I’m heartened by the Biden administration’s announcement of vaccines for 300 million people by summer, as long as supply remains limited, the rollout will remain challenging for our systems, as well as our community members. Until the vaccine supply catches up with demand and many more people are vaccinated, I appreciate your patience and continued commitment to taking those measures that we know work to limit the spread of the virus: wear a mask, keep physical distance and stay home as much as you can.

Our communal dedication to caring for each other in these ways has pushed the tri-county area’s metrics down enough for us to move from the State’s “extreme risk” category into “high risk.” And it will require that same dedication from all of us to protect this fragile progress. 

Eviction Moratorium and What’s Next

Multnomah County renters who sign and return a sworn declaration form to their landlord stating that they are unable to afford their rent are now protected by Oregon’s statewide eviction moratorium (HB 4401). The statewide eviction moratorium makes it unlawful for landlords to evict people who are unable to pay their rent and for landlords to evict renters without cause. 

Renters are urged to sign and return a one-page “Declaration of Financial Hardship for Eviction Protection” form to their landlord in order to be protected by the moratorium through June 30, 2021. The form and more information about the statewide eviction moratorium in English and many other languages can be found here. Renters can also pick up a copy of the form in any of the languages available online at any Multnomah County Library location.

Renters who have received a notice about the eviction moratorium and a copy of the form from their landlords must sign and return the form to be protected. Even if the landlord hasn’t provided the materials, renters are encouraged to submit the form as soon as possible. 

Renters who submit the form have until July 1, 2021 to pay back money they owe. I know the thought of that deadline will cause a lot of anxiety for renters who are seeing their debt increase every month. I’ve shared this before but I will share it again: if the state fails to extend either the moratorium or the grace period beyond June 30, 2021, Multnomah County is committed to taking local action to make sure that renters here remain protected and housed for the duration of the pandemic. 

But an eviction moratorium and grace period only kick the can of outstanding debt down the road, leaving renters vulnerable to an eventual financial cliff. This certainly isn’t acceptable, and it doesn’t have to be inevitable.

new report from Portland State University’s Homelessness Research & Action Collaborative showed that the cost of helping Oregon renters cover the rent they owe currently stands at about $378 million. However, the cost of mass evictions would cost between $1 billion and $3.3 billion in short-term shelter services, child welfare services, healthcare and other measures that must be taken in the event of thousands of households losing their homes.

This report shows how critical it is for state and federal governments to provide support like rent relief funds to ensure renters can stay in their homes once the moratorium ends. While the fact that the cost of inaction far exceeds the cost of relief makes for a compelling economic case, helping people keep their housing after the pandemic stands on its own moral ground. It is simply the right thing to do, and I will continue to advocate at both the state and federal levels to see that through.

Please stay safe and stay healthy,

Deborah Kafoury
Multnomah County Chair