Supporting People Experiencing Homelessness during the COVID-19 Crisis

Updated May 20, 2020

One of Multnomah County’s greatest responsibilities during the COVID-19 crisis is to look out for our neighbors who are particularly put at risk for the virus. Under the direction of County Chair Deborah Kafoury, the Joint Office of Homeless Services has taken direct, swift actions to limit the spread of COVID-19 to and among people experiencing homelessness. 

During a March 17 press conference, Tri-County Health Officer Dr. Jennifer Vines shared that a major communicable disease event, like the COVID-19 emergency, shines a spotlight on numerous “crises within the crisis,” including issues like housing instability and food insecurity. Multnomah County works every day to support community members experiencing these hardships, but COVID-19 sharpens the picture of how these difficulties intersect, overlap and compound barriers to wellness and security.

Nowhere is that demonstrated more clearly than in the heightened vulnerability to COVID-19 that people living in shelters or outside experience. Shelter spaces that members of our community access typically don’t have the room to adhere to the physical distancing guidelines recommended by Public Health experts during this crisis. Many people experiencing homelessness are older, and many have underlying health issues, placing them at higher risk. 

In order to provide the support people experiencing homelessness need during this unprecedented emergency, the County and its partners have taken various kinds of measures:

Moving and Distancing Shelter Beds, Increasing Safety 

  • Extending winter shelters: Immediately after Chair Kafoury declared a state of emergency in Multnomah County on March 11, she ordered adult winter shelters to remain open instead of closing in spring as scheduled. That kept dozens of people inside and created immediate space to spread out shelter beds.

  • Expanding motel vouchers: The Joint Office authorized shelters to expand the use of motel vouchers to ensure shelter residents who were at higher risk of experiencing complications from the virus, including people over 60 and with certain underlying health conditions, could access safer accommodations.

  • Eviction moratorium: Chair Kafoury ordered a moratorium on residential evictions. People can’t stay home and stay healthy if they don’t have a home to be in. The moratorium ensures that more people are not thrust into homelessness, or unstable housing, during the emergency or because of COVID-19’s impact on wages and income. Learn more about the moratorium here.

  • Physical Distancing Shelters: Initial phase (mid-March through late-May)

    • Working quickly with Portland Parks and Recreation and Metro, the County opened shelters on March 20 in two high-profile public buildings — the Charles Jordan Community Center and the Oregon Convention Center. The 240 beds between the two temporary shelter spaces do not add new capacity, but do allow the system to maintain the total number of beds while practicing safe distance. 

    • The East Portland Community Center opened March 30 as a women-only shelter to further aid in maintaining shelter capacity while upholding safety measures. 

    • The Mt. Scott Community Center opened April 6 as an indoor-only shelter space, helping spread out existing beds. Because so many sites have been added to spread out beds, privately funded shelter providers such as CityTeam and Right 2 Dream Too have also been able to space out their programs by shifting people to these new spaces.

  • Physical Distancing Shelters: Next phase (Starting late-May)

    • As communities in Oregon begin taking steps toward reopening, the Joint Office and the County’s Emergency Operations Center will begin to gradually relocate the 375 beds total beds from the four physical distancing shelters. Beds will be shifted to new locations and to ensure physical distancing can continue in shelters for the foreseeable future.

    • In addition, beds in new locations will be set aside for those in shelter who are most vulnerable to serious COVID-19 infections, including people who are older or who have underlying health conditions.  

  • Medical shelters: The Jupiter Hotel stepped forward and offered Multnomah County all 81 of its rooms for people experiencing homelessness who develop symptoms. A second hotel in east Portland is also offering 40 rooms. Whether the folks in those motels are coming from a shelter, are working with an outreach worker on the streets, or are leaving a hospital, they can isolate away from a congregate setting, helping to limit the spread of COVID-19 among vulnerable groups.

  • Increasing shelter staffing: Nearly 80 temporary workers have been hired to staff the physical distancing shelters and 18 nurses, physician assistants and physicians for the medical motel shelters.

  • Outdoor emergency shelters: The Joint Office, working with JOIN, the City of Portland, and nonprofit partners such as Right 2 Dream Too, Sisters of the Road and Street Roots and others, is funding three outdoor emergency shelters that will host roughly 30 people each and provide multiple restrooms and handwashing stations, as well as access to meals. The sites (on SE Water and Main, SE Water and Salmon, and NW Broadway and Glisan) began operating the week of April 12.

Meal Assistance and Food Access 

  • Supporting meal prep and distribution: The Joint Office approved $260,000 a month as part of an emergency contract with Catholic Charities and Blanchet House to support the preparation and distribution of 10,000 meals a week at Blanchet House and the St. Francis Dining Hall.

  • Meals for physical distancing shelter residents: The Joint Office and Multnomah County’s Emergency Operations Center are working with Stone Soup, a restaurant and vocational training program, to provide hundreds of meals a day at the four physical distancing shelters and two motel shelters that have opened because of COVID-19. Stone Soup is coordinating with community partners and several local restaurants.

  • Expanding reach of food access resources: The Joint Office has also created a pilot program in which outreach teams can access sack lunches and bottled water that they can distribute to people experiencing unsheltered homelessness far from the city center, where many remaining good services are concentrated. Just from April 29 through May 15. Teams shared approximately 6,300 sack lunches. This effort currently relies on four partners to provide the lunches and eight community organizations to distribute them.

Outreach and Education 

  • Hosting a supply depot: The Joint Office has provided hundreds of masks and sanitizer to shelters and outreach teams. The Joint Office is staffing a supply depot that service providers, whether funded by the County or not, can access.

  • Outreach initiative: The Joint Office coordinated a days-long, countywide outreach initiative that reached more than 2,500 people in every corner of the County. The teams distributed outdoor gear, sanitizer and bedding.

  • Information cards: The Joint Office and Public Health also worked with service providers and experts to create and distribute a laminated information card on COVID-19 for people experiencing homelessness. Outreach workers, shelters, day spaces and other programs have distributed thousands of copies since March 11.

  • Direct distribution of gear and supplies: Daily distribution of survival and COVID-related gear continues thanks to Joint Office funding. To date, teams have distributed thousands of bottles of sanitizer, blankets, water bottles, and face coverings.

  • Sharing gear and supplies with partners: Since April 7, the nearly 45 organizations, agencies and community partners — many of whom have not traditionally been funded by the Joint Office — have received gear from the Joint Office to distribute.

  • Producing guidance: Counseled by community-based organizations, the Joint Office worked with the County’s Public Health Division to produce comprehensive guidance for shelters and for people who are unsheltered.

  • Public Health coordination: Weekly (formerly twice a week), the Joint Office brings together dozens of service providers for check-in calls where they can ask for direct guidance from Public Health, ask other questions and compare notes.

  • Provider resource page: The Joint Office is also curating a resource page at where service providers can share updates on how their programs are changing because of COVID-19.

  • Diversion Programs: The Mental Health and Addiction Services Division continues to fund the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) Program. This effort, which works primarily with people experiencing homelessness in Portland’s Old Town Chinatown and inner eastside, connects individuals with a substance use disorder with case management services instead of sending them to jail.