COVID-19 and homelessness in Multnomah County

Quinn Colling, JOIN's outreach coordinator, and Perlia Bell, JOIN's outreach worker covering downtown.

As concern over COVID-19 in our community has grown, Multnomah County and its partners have pursued several strategies — and offered significant emergency resources — to help limit the spread of infection among neighbors experiencing homelessness.

So far, Public Health and the Joint Office of Homeless Services, working with the County and the City of Portland, have done the following:

  • Added shelter space in public buildings such as Charles Jordan Community Center and the Oregon Convention Center.

  • Kept adult winter shelters open

  • Expanded the use of motel vouchers

  • Provided hundreds of masks and sanitizer to shelters and outreach teams

  • Distributed more than 2,000 COVID-19 info cards to people experiencing homelessness

  • Organized a days-long, county-wide outreach mission that reached more than 2,100 people in all parts of the County.

  • Provided funding for shelters and outreach teams to purchase gear (bedding, tarps, etc.)

  • Worked with community-based organizations to develop comprehensive guidance for shelters and people who are unsheltered. 

  • Convened twice-weekly check-ins with Public Health and providers of all kinds, whether government- or privately funded, to give updates on the virus, public health guidance, and address programming concerns. 

The need: High-risk populations on our streets and in our shelters

Even though many people who contract COVID-19 may never develop serious symptoms or even know they had it in the first place, we know the disease has been particularly serious — and life-threatening — for people who are older and have underlying medical conditions.

And as we see every day, those high-risk groups are disproportionately represented among the community members sleeping in our shelters and on our streets.

Planning for a crisis

Multnomah County started emergency operations Jan. 28. Oregon’s first case was announced late Friday, Feb. 27. The next day, Feb. 28, the Joint Office, Public Health, shelter providers and others consulted with our regional health officer on immediate and longer-term next steps.

Staff have been working daily to devise and share health guidance, and then plan for how providers can best implement that guidance.

Helping people in shelter

Public Health on March 3 asked providers who manage shelters and congregate programs like day spaces and meal services to give feedback on draft guidance. That guidance was shared formally on March 4. 

Public Health focused on shelters and congregate programs first because of the heightened risk of transmission in spaces shared by so many people. That guidance included:

  • Creating sleeping areas for people with coughing symptoms and people without, with a 6-foot buffer between those two types of areas (but not between beds in those areas.)

  • Asking people with coughing symptoms to wear masks

  • Increasing handwashing and sanitization

To support those changes, the Joint Office is sharing masks and sanitizer.

To help maintain overall capacity, and accommodate any changes in bed counts at shelters, winter shelters will remain open and motel vouchers will be expanded.

In addition, County staff, working with nonprofits and partners in the City of Portland and Metro, have opened additional shelter spaces in public buildings that have been closed because of COVID-related shutdowns. More than 250 beds opened March 20 at the Charles Jordan Community Center and at the Oregon Convention Center. They will help shelter providers de-congest current shelter facilities to provide social distancing space while preserving bed capacity — and hopefully lead to intakes resuming into our shelter system.

Beds will be given first to guests in current shelters, and then be offered like always through reservations only — not through walk-ins or drop-offs — by calling 211.

Work also continues around evaluating the feasibility and suitability of additional spaces for shelter as the changing conditions of COVID-19 dictate.

Helping people without shelter

At the same time, Public Health worked with the Joint Office, as well as advocates and outreach providers, to craft guidance, care advice and basic information for camps and outreach workers. 

Starting Wednesday, March 11, the Joint Office led 14 different agencies, some who volunteered and some who regularly are paid by the Joint Office for outreach, in launching a massive outreach mission to share that information (in the form of laminated cards) as well as bring life-saving supplies to people who are unsheltered and living in encampments.

Outreach teams also have the authority to obtain supplies like blankets and tarps, as needed, to help people implement the guidance from Public Health.

Over seven days, outreach teams reached every corner of the County and made contact with more than 2,100 people.

Shelter guidance:

https://multco.us/novel-coronavirus-covid-19/covid-19-guidance-congregate-and-shelter-settings

Camp guidance with FAQ: 

https://multco.us/novel-coronavirus-covid-19/covid-19-guidance-people-experiencing-homelessness-without-shelter