Supporting People Experiencing Homelessness during the COVID-19 Crisis

Updated December 10, 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 measures:

Transforming Our Shelter System to Keep People Safe 

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.

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. In the following weeks, the County opened shelters in two other buildings: the East Portland Community Center and Mt. Scott Community Center. The hundreds of beds across the four temporary shelter spaces did not add new capacity, but did allow the system to maintain beds while practicing physical distancing. 

Physical Distancing Motel Shelters: Second phase (June through present)

As COVID-19 case counts began rising again in Multnomah County in June, the Joint Office and the County’s Emergency Operations Center began the process of winding down operations at all four temporary emergency shelters and replacing them with physical distancing motel shelters. Motels offer safer shelter for vulnerable people by giving them access to individual rooms and bathrooms, while still allowing traditional shelter services such as housing navigation, wellness support, and case management.

Beds at motel shelters are reserved for shelter system residents who have been assessed as having the highest risk of dying or experiencing serious symptoms from COVID-19. That includes people who are older or who have underlying health conditions, as well as people from communities that have disparately affected by COVID-19. Public health guidance has called for better separation and isolation options for people at high risk in congregate settings.

  • The first physical distancing motel shelter, at the 58-room Chestnut Tree Inn in east Portland, opened June 3 to women assessed as high risk. Human Solutions is operating that shelter.

  • The Joint Office opened three more physical distancing motel shelters In July. The Banfield Value Inn, serving adults of all genders, offers 53 rooms and is operated by Transition Projects. The Motel 6 site offers 43 rooms, while the Days Inn site offers 59 rooms; both shelters serve adults of all genders and are operated by Do Good Multnomah.

  • The Joint Office and the Urban League of Portland partnered to open a fifth motel shelter, called the Jamii Program. Opened in October at a North Portland site, the program is specifically designed for Black adults who face increased risks from COVID-19. It offers 43 units of temporary shelter for adults in a safe and socially distanced program designed to maximize success for Black people.

  • A sixth and final motel shelter opened in early December at the 43-room Portland Value Inn - Barbur in Southwest Portland, operated by Do Good Multnomah. The opening of this shelter completed the transition to motels for vulnerable people.

Medical motels

Multnomah County also provides 120 rooms of “voluntary isolation” space at two additional motels: the Jupiter Hotel in Southeast Portland and a second motel in east Portland. These voluntary isolation motels serve people from the shelter system or crowded housing situations who have COVID-19 symptoms, or who need a place to quarantine while awaiting test results. Someone in our shelter system referred to one of these motels won’t lose their current shelter bed. It will be there waiting for them when they’re cleared to return.

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, among others, funded three outdoor emergency shelters that host roughly 100 people in total 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 in April. Work to winterize the three sites by replacing tents with durable personal pod structures that offer electricity for heat and lights began in late November and finished in early December.

Eviction moratorium

In March 2020, as the shape and severity of the COVID-19 pandemic started coming into focus, it became evident that the sudden loss of employment for thousands of Multnomah County residents carried the potential for mass evictions. Understanding that people can’t stay home and stay healthy if they don’t have a home to be in, Chair Kafoury ordered a moratorium on residential evictions, the first such action by any Oregon jurisdiction. The moratorium ensured that more people were not thrust into homelessness or unstable housing during the emergency because of COVID-19’s impact on wages and income.

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown soon followed by issuing a statewide eviction moratorium with several provisions that differed from the County’s. The Board of County Commissioners voted unanimously on April 16 to suspend enforcement of the County’s moratorium in favor of adopting the statewide order. At various points throughout the year, it appeared that there could be gaps in protection as the state legislature considered extending their moratorium. Multnomah County stepped back in with local stop-gap measures to make sure that Multnomah County remained protected, and stepped back when the legislature voted to continue statewide protections. 

As of mid January 2021, Multnomah County renters are covered by Multnomah County’s eviction moratorium. However, starting Feb. 1, 2021, tenants in Multnomah County will be covered by the statewide eviction moratorium. Learn more here.

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 worked  with Stone Soup, a restaurant and vocational training program, to provide hundreds of meals a day at the four physical distancing shelters and the two voluntary isolation motel shelters. Stone Soup coordinated 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. Between late April and early August, teams distributed more than 28,000 sack lunches.

Outreach and Education 

Hosting a supply depot

The Joint Office kept its wintertime downtown supply depot open all year because of COVID-19. That site has distributed items critical for people’s health and safety to  service providers, whether they are funded by the County or not. To date, roughly 70 organizations have accessed supplies from the depot.

If you have questions about supplies, email JOHSSupplies@multco.us.

Outreach initiative

In the early days of the pandemic, 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.

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

Every two weeks, formerly weekly, 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.

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.