Multnomah County and Portland leaders Friday say they do not have enough emergency winter shelter space due to physical distancing requirements during the pandemic.
Officials are asking community members for ideas about large spaces that can be used as cold and severe weather shelters for people experiencing homelessness.
“As it stands right now, because of COVID-19, we cannot guarantee that everyone who needs it can have shelter on the worst nights of the year,” Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury said Friday in a press conference, “but that can change.”
Marc Jolin, director of the Joint Office of Homeless Services, said the county has been able to sustain all of its year-round shelter capacity, about 1,400 beds, through new physically distanced shelter spaces and motel shelters. The office is also in the process of opening up 275 shelter beds that will be open 24 hours a day during the winter.
There is still a need for specific additional shelter beds during severe weather events.
Kafoury said the county is looking to secure at least 300 additional shelter beds as the weather gets colder.
All spaces typically used for winter weather shelter are currently being considered but are smaller than needed to achieve capacity with coronavirus health guidelines in mind, officials said Friday.
“We want to do whatever it takes to help people stay safe on the coldest and wettest nights of the year,” Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler said at the press conference.
Portland’s newest commissioner, Dan Ryan, also spoke about winter shelter needs. Ryan’s office oversees the Joint Office of Homeless Services.
“Before COVID, we had an effective system in place,” Ryan said. “Now, because of COVID, the world is a different place. … We need to be creative and seek new and creative partnerships now more than ever.”
Ryan said the city and county are seeking three to five large spaces in the central city, mid-county and in Gresham. He noted that these sites cannot be remote or difficult to reach.
“We’re talking with public agencies and asking for help, but we need private partnerships as well,” Ryan said.
Ryan said the spaces need to be accessible for homeless services providers to gain access on-demand as winter weather events occur. The spaces need to be at least 5,000 square feet, Ryan said. There must be bathrooms, “the more the better,” he said, and an area where providers can store mats, blankets and other supplies.
Ryan gave examples of spaces including gymnasiums, cafeterias, large meeting spaces and ballrooms. Spaces must be on the ground floor, in order to be ADA accessible, and they must have a hard floor surface that is easy to clean.
Officials urged community members to contact the Joint Office of Homeless Services if they have any such places in mind.
A reporter in Friday’s press conference posed two spaces for consideration: the Oregon Convention Center and the former Wapato Jail.
The convention center was used as a mixed-gender physically distanced shelter earlier on in the pandemic. The never-used Wapato Jail has now been repurposed as a homeless shelter, called Bybee Lakes Hope Center, and had its grand opening earlier this month. It is expected to have nearly 230 beds for longer-term housing in December.
Kafoury said county and city officials are “exploring every option” for shelter but are focusing on buildings that are easily accessible to the central city area. Bybee Lakes Hope Center is about 12 miles from downtown Portland.