County staff this week worked with partners in other local governments to open shelters in two high-profile public buildings left unused because of the COVID-19 crisis — the Charles Jordan Community Center and the Oregon Convention Center.
Together, the two spaces will hold beds for as many as 250 adults. But unlike other shelters that have opened over the past five years, these beds and these spaces aren’t meant to add new capacity to the shelter system.
Instead, they’re helping the Joint Office of Homeless Services space out the County’s shelter system so it can comply with physical distancing guidance without losing beds. Charles Jordan and the Convention Center will primarily serve people who are already in shelters.
Since Feb. 28, shelters have been attempting to create physical distancing space while taking other steps to limit the spread of respiratory illness, such as requiring guests with coughing symptoms to wear masks. In the interim, to create space, shelter providers have either paused or curtailed intakes.
The Joint Office is hoping intakes can increase as beds are spread to new spaces. The Joint Office, funded by the City of Portland and Multnomah County, has also kept open its winter shelters and is also allowing shelter operators some limited ability to refer vulnerable people in their spaces to motel rooms. Additional shelter spaces are expected to open in the coming days.
"I knew I'd be making some tough asks to get these shelter spaces open so quickly. I knew we had to think big,” Chair Deborah Kafoury said. “But I also knew this community would be ready to stand up. This is the kind of partnership, the kind of quick solutions that this crisis demands."
Quick setup, and help from County staff
Staff from Do Good Multnomah, a shelter and housing services provider, started working Thursday to set up at Charles Jordan Community Center, which is being offered by the city’s Parks and Recreation Bureau.
County staff, meanwhile, started setting up at the Metro regional government’s Oregon Convention Center on Friday — building on Disaster Resource Center plans used during severe weather and other emergencies. They were joined by Commissioner Sharon Meieran, who helped set up cots and prepare the space.
County employees will also be joining workers from nonprofit shelter providers such as Transition Projects and Do Good at the two sites, both of which will be open 24 hours. Commissioner Susheela Jayapal was among the team serving breakfast on Saturday morning, March 21. County library employees in particular have been asked to take shifts, given their expertise and training in working with the public. But staff from many departments and teams have already joined in.
“This is a time of serious and urgent need in our community,” County leaders said in a statement. “As public servants, we adhere to the ideals of shared purpose and collective effort to make things better for our friends and neighbors. We are deeply grateful to the County employees who have volunteered and to those who are working tirelessly to support the mission of public health and the values of public service.”
Valerie Thompson, a case manager who works in domestic violence services said she just wanted to do something to help.
"Who is going to do it if I don't do it?” she said. “You have got to pay it forward."
‘It feels like my duty’
By Saturday afternoon at the Convention Center, guests had settled into their spaces, all carefully marked with tape to ensure sufficient distance from one cot to the next. Some rested in their cots, while others sat at tables charging phones or offered a hand to finish preparing the room.
One guest from Janus Youth Programs helped staff break down boxes. He said he wished all shelters were this calm, with enough space to spread out.
“Being homeless, you get looked down on a lot,” he said. “Now it’s extra bad. People look at you and it’s like, ‘You’re homeless. You must have coronavirus.’”
But not here, he said.
Carlos Negrete, normally a disease intervention specialist for the County, today offered last calls on individual boxed pizza left over from lunch.
Kelley Tralle and Soumary Vongrassamy, who normally offer training for County staff through Human Resources, checked in guests.
Jorden Leonard, who normally sorts books for the library, set up a physical-distance-friendly game circle, with spaced out chairs and a white board for ideas: Charades. A Dad-Joke Face-off. Etc.
And Nicole Newsom, who normally coordinates children's programs for the library, was settling into her work coordinates the shelter.
“I want to do the most helpful thing at this time. As a public servant, it feels like my duty,” she said. “Some people can’t do this. They have health conditions or kids at home. I don’t have those so that also makes me feel a responsibility to serve.”
FOR ADDITIONAL INFORMATION
To learn more about the County’s work to protect people experiencing homelessness from the spread of COVID-19, the Joint Office has a summary on its webpage.
To learn more about how homelessness programs all across the community are adapting their work because of COVID-19, go to ahomeforeveryone.net.