June 22, 2020

Contact: Denis Theriault

Communications Coordinator

Joint Office of Homeless Services

denis.theriault@multco.us | 503-893-9430

PORTLAND (June 4, 2020) — Responding to public health guidance and the urgent need to protect people who are most at risk of hospitalization or death from COVID-19, Multnomah County and the City of Portland’s emergency shelter plans have taken a step forward.

Starting Wednesday, June 3, the Joint Office of Homeless Services and Multnomah County’s Emergency Operations Center began operating the Chestnut Tree Inn in east Portland as a shelter for women assessed as having some of the highest risks of hospitalization and death from COVID-19.

At the same time, staff have begun winding down shelter operations at the East Portland Community Center, which opened in early April as a physical distancing extension shelter. 

The shift comes as Multnomah County and the rest of Oregon take steps toward reopening and as more people throughout the community mix again in shared spaces. The transition to motel-like spaces is driven by public health guidance, and offers an urgent and more immediate option for protecting people’s lives in the face of COVID-19’s expected “second wave.” 

Opening a shelter at the Chestnut Tree is the first step in the Joint Office’s plan to relocate more than 300 beds of congregate shelter capacity currently offered in four temporarily closed public buildings — the Charles Jordan, Mt. Scott and East Portland community centers, and the Oregon Convention Center. 

Each of those buildings will eventually return to something closer to their original use. But at the same time, without a widely accessible vaccine or treatment for COVID-19, the disproportionate risks of serious and fatal symptoms for people experiencing homelessness will remain and could grow.

So the Joint Office and Emergency Operations Center are working now — ahead of time — to plan how to move beds into spaces that can be available for the next 12 to 18 months while also providing better spaces where those most at risk to self-isolate.

"As we move from preparing for disaster to now living with a pandemic, our commitment to protecting our unhoused neighbors must remain the same. Soon, public spaces will again host more people coming in contact with each other, and people experiencing homelessness are at a much higher risk of both contracting the virus and of hospitalization. Our public health experts recommend self-isolation as a critical tool to help vulnerable people protect themselves, and that’s why adjusting our shelter strategy to include isolation options is so important," said Multnomah Chair Deborah Kafoury.

The timing and sequence of transitions beyond the opening of the Chestnut Tree Inn and the closing of East Portland Community Center have yet to be determined. But the Joint Office is looking to continue those additional transitions in the coming weeks. 

"The work to make our shelter system healthier and more trauma-informed started well before this pandemic, and that progress has served us well as we navigate this crisis. I was proud that our community centers could provide space for physical distancing, and as this crisis lingers, we must continue to find clever and innovative strategies for keeping the most vulnerable people in our care safe from infection," said Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler. 

Throughout any transition, the health and safety of shelter guests will remain a priority. No one staying in a current physical distancing shelter will lose a bed because of these changes.

Overall shelter capacity, so long as funding continues, as well as the Joint Office’s commitment to physical distancing in all shelters, will also remain unchanged. 

Medical motel shelters, like the one operating at the Jupiter Hotel, will also remain available for people who have COVID-19-like symptoms, or who are awaiting test results, and need isolation.

By refining its strategy for physical distancing in shelters — finding longer-term locations and focusing on those most vulnerable to life-threatening symptoms — the Joint Office hopes to preserve the County’s progress limiting the spread of COVID-19. It also hopes to protect people who have no home in where they can isolate and who are most at risk of dying from COVID-19. 

As of data from June 1, nine people in Multnomah County who tested positive for COVID-19 reported experiencing homelessness at some point in the six months before their test, out of more than 1,100 confirmed cases overall.

In addition to supporting physical distancing in shelters, the Joint Office has overseen a massive push to provide food, gear and outreach services to people experiencing homelessness. 

Since March, the Joint Office has distributed thousands of face coverings, bottles of hand sanitizer, gloves, blankets, sack lunches and water bottles, among other materials, to dozens of outreach teams and volunteer groups. 

The Joint Office is also funding work by Catholic Charities of Oregon and Blanchet House to produce a minimum of 10,000 meals a week for people in need of food at a time when many day services and meal programs have had to scale back. 

To learn more about work by the Joint Office, Multnomah County and the City of Portland to help people experiencing homelessness find shelter, safety and support during the COVID-19 emergency, go to ahomeforeveryone.net/covid-homelessness.