Plagued by crises, Oregon looks to motels as creative solution to sheltering the unhoused

By Sam Stites (OPB)
July 27, 2021 12 p.m.

The program launched last year and administered by the Oregon Community Foundation is finally realizing its full potential, adding more than 900 units of emergency shelter to state’s capacity in 19 projects across 13 counties.

This former Motel 6 along Highway 99W on McMinnville’s south side is the site of Yamhill Community Action Partnership’s new Project Turnkey emergency housing shelter. The organization is one of 19 statewide to acquire funding through an Oregon Community Foundation grant allowing YCAP to make the $3.9 million purchase.

This former Motel 6 along Highway 99W on McMinnville’s south side is the site of Yamhill Community Action Partnership’s new Project Turnkey emergency housing shelter. The organization is one of 19 statewide to acquire funding through an Oregon Community Foundation grant allowing YCAP to make the $3.9 million purchase.

Courtesy of Yamhill Community Action Partnership

A few months ago, Troy and Danette were living in the only home they could afford when they became houseless.


At $400 a month, they were renting two bedrooms in a decrepit old house in rural Yamhill County and sharing it with their elderly landlord.

When the aging property owner’s children decided to move him out of the home, they also boarded up the house, which had fallen into complete disrepair.

“That left us with no place to go,” said Troy, who spoke to OPB on the condition that he give only his first name.

“They really didn’t give us much notice. They pulled all the appliances out, there were opossums coming in at night, and they were going to totally turn the electricity and everything off by the first of April.”

According to Troy, Danette has congestive heart failure and diabetes among other serious health conditions. Troy’s health is also strained, but mostly he feared for his wife.

“Being on the street like that would have killed my wife,” he said. “Just the stress alone of not knowing where we were gonna go was pretty hard.”

But luckily for Troy, that was right around the same time he met Sean Cavaghan, one of several outreach specialists for Yamhill Community Action Partnership, or YCAP, a houseless services provider based in McMinnville.

Over the past year, YCAP and other agencies across Oregon have seen success in a creative solution to emergency housing: using the state’s stock of empty motels as non-congregate shelter for people vulnerable to COVID-19 or people who have been victims of wildfire.

Cavaghan introduced Troy to a program YCAP had been running since around March 2020 that grew out of a partnership with Providence Newberg Medical Center to shelter unhoused people who were medically vulnerable.

Troy and Danette were able to be set up in their own motel room for a few months while they got back on their feet with the help of Cavaghan and other YCAP staff who came to check on them regularly to ensure medical and other needs were being met.

According to Cavaghan, a huge part of the outreach process includes just speaking to clients, learning their story and identifying what other services they could benefit from.

Eventually YCAP was able to find housing for Troy and Danette and help them apply for Section 8 vouchers.

Cavaghan said that one of the biggest challenges for unhoused people is having access to a phone or the internet, critical tools when you’re trying to find a place to live or navigate government systems.

With YCAP’s help and some federal assistance money, Troy and Danette are now living in their own home.

“That organization pretty much saved us,” Troy said. “I don’t want to sound like a cliche, but I was checking (Sean) for wings and a halo.”

A creative solution to a complex problem

Troy and Danette’s story is familiar to just about anyone in Oregon who works in homeless services. But this framework for helping vulnerable people get into stable housing where wrap-around services are made readily available has provided a breakthrough for Oregon in finding a new model of emergency shelter.

That new model took the form of Project Turnkey, a grant program administered by the Oregon Community Foundation that has allowed agencies like YCAP to purchase former motels across the state at the cost of $75 million to add more than 900 units of emergency shelter to the state’s portfolio.

This money allowed 13 Oregon counties to purchase 19 properties that account for a 20% increase in Oregon’s year-round emergency shelter capacity. Those counties are: Multnomah, Washington, Yamhill, Deschutes, Jackson, Lincoln, Lane, Douglas, Marion, Coos, Umatilla, Klamath and Benton.

Many properties purchased through Project Turnkey are currently being operated as emergency shelters, but others are requiring extensive upgrades to meet the needs of the agencies and communities using them.

Each project is at a different stage. For example, in Jackson County, a 47-unit motel in Medford is currently one-third occupied while the other two-thirds receives a major face lift. Another in Portland is receiving updates now and is expected to open in September. About 16 of the 19 properties are housing occupants in some capacity, according to the Oregon Community Foundation.

The program officially got off the ground in November 2020 when the state Legislature’s emergency board set aside $65 million for the Oregon Community Foundation to administer the grants. Counties and other groups soon began submitting applications.

Two separate funds were provided by the state in that initial cash infusion: one totaling $30 million to be awarded in counties and tribal communities impacted by the 2020 wildfires; and one totaling $44.7 million for the remaining 28 counties in the state.

The Oregon Legislature ended up setting aside an additional $9 million in late June to fill a gap and allow agencies in Bend and Portland to pursue three more opportunities.

To keep track of the program’s progress and vet projects along the way, the Oregon Community Foundation created an advisory committee that keeps tabs on how the properties are being used and what types of outcomes they’re seeing among the people they are helping.

Megan Loeb, Oregon Community Foundation program officer for economic vitality and health, said that her agency is focused on being good stewards of the funds to ensure that every dollar is a community asset that helps the state both in the short and long term.

“We believe this is a model public-private partnership to help address a very complex problem,” Loeb said.

Project Turnkey recently received some praise when the National Alliance to End Homelessness — a nonprofit that gathers data and produces research on best practices — featured the program in a July 20 case study on turning motels into housing.

One of the findings of that study commended the state and the Oregon Community Foundation’s ability to have strong oversight through the advisory committee. It also praised the program for ensuring that each project has a community-centered approach with strategies that take into account both the short and long-term goals of each project.

“The collective wisdom of many public and private sector partners helped this concept to gain traction within Oregon’s Legislature and at the local level within communities,” the study said. “Those partners informed the design and priorities of the grant program, and continue to engage as champions and technical assistance providers to ensure long-term success of the initiative.”

Quantifying success of Project Turnkey

Cavaghan says the great thing about the Project Turnkey model is that it provides people like Troy and Danette a sense of stability.

For people who come out of congregate housing settings, it allows them to rebuild the soft skills that come with living on your own and establish the type of headspace that allows unhoused individuals to move forward into more permanent housing situations.

“I think the best outcome is just being happy and healthy,” Cavaghan said. “Just being in their own space and being able to do things they wanted to do. The question that comes up all the time is, ‘What are you doing for fun or enjoyment?’ Usually the answer is nothing. Usually it’s just survival.”

In Multnomah County, the Project Turnkey model has done much of the same it has for Yamhill: it allows agencies to adapt on the fly and respond to emergencies.


According to Denis Theriault — a Multnomah County communications coordinator who works closely with the joint office of homeless services — using motels to house vulnerable unhoused populations was an easy way to help limit the spread of COVID-19. As the pandemic worsened, Multnomah County was increasingly challenged by the prospect of keeping unhoused people taking shelter in spaces like the Oregon Convention Center socially distanced.

“Even in those places, even when you got six feet around you, you’re still in a congregate space,” Theriault said. “A lot of people in shelters are older, 65 and up, and have health conditions.”

The county began putting people up in several motels across Portland, and when the Oregon Community Foundation announced Project Turnkey would provide the county and its partners the ability to permanently purchase motel property, they jumped at the opportunity.

Theriault says the county operates approximately 1,400 shelter beds on any given day. Through Project Turnkey, they’ve been able to partner with organizations like Do Good Multnomah, Central City Concern and the Rockwood Community Development Corporation to add 188 beds, getting the county closer to its goal of adding 400 permanent beds.

Housing crises not just a ‘Portland issue’

Theriault said that Project Turnkey is able to address housing issues on a statewide level because Oregon’s housing crisis isn’t an issue exclusive to the metro area. He said that when other counties add shelter or transitional housing capacity, it alleviates strain across the entire state.

“The housing crisis, it’s not a Multnomah County issue,” Theriault said. “People who see Portland and Multnomah County as sort of this example of what went wrong, ... it’s going wrong in their communities too. And Project Turnkey, smartly, is helping them get some resources in recognition that there’s things they can do to help their folks too.”

Affordability is another big issue that plays into Oregon’s housing and homeless crisis.

If you ask around the state, you might hear a few different answers as to where the most unaffordable community in Oregon truly is.

One of those places is Benton County, and Corvallis specifically, where — according to Corvallis Housing First Director Andrea Myhre — rent-to-income ratios are on the extreme end of unaffordability.

“We’re right up there with Portland,” Myhre said.

Myhre said that Benton County also lacks a diversity in different styles and levels of housing, similar to many other parts of the state struggling with housing instability and homelessness.

According to Myhre, having the ability to purchase a 25-unit property just outside of downtown Corvallis not only addressed issues around congregate sheltering while the pandemic remains, but also adding stock to their market for people who are experiencing chronic homelessness.

“It is so hard to find land or any development sites here,” Myhre said. “The exciting thing is we have a half acre of land in the back of the property, so we were like, ‘Great, let’s build more’”.

Planning for the future

At its beginning, Project Turnkey was laser focused on sheltering individuals who were vulnerable to COVID-19 or were victims of wildfire. As the pandemic lingers and wildfire returns to Oregon’s landscape, the properties continue to serve a primary function in the rapid rehousing of vulnerable populations.

But many of the service providers that have purchased motels as shelters have big ideas for what might come next. They’re also planning how to fund these operations on an ongoing basis after receiving a one-time allocation to acquire them.

For Myhre, being able to offer supportive services is as important as the physical roof over people’s heads, so ensuring they are able to continue staffing the shelter has been a big issue.

That’s also true for many of the organizations and counties that have participated in Project Turnkey.

According to Theriault, programs in Washington and Multnomah counties have been able to staff the shelter with money made available through the supportive housing services ballot measure passed by Portland-area voters last year.

Other counties are not as fortunate, so many of them had to go out for other grants or partnerships that will allow them to continue staffing these new shelters at a high level.

Mary-Rain O’Meara, Central City Concern’s director of real estate, said that in the near term her organization is focusing on the permanent housing aspect of Project Turnkey — helping those experiencing homelessness and substance use disorders stabilize and transition on their way to more permanent housing.

But in the long term, Central City Concern plans to expand use of the property it purchased — the former Comfort Inn and Suites located near 102nd Avenue near the Portland Airport — by adding it to its list of Federally Qualified Health Centers in partnership with the Oregon Community Foundation, Oregon Health Authority and Legacy Health.

Central City Concern is billing it as a “recovery hotel,” where clients can receive the medical and behavioral healthcare they need to move forward. They expect to begin renovations on that property in October.

“It has been a unique challenge to take on this ‘patchwork’ approach to fundraising for operations of the building, but we are committed ... to put the building to work housing those most in need of these services,” O’Meara said.

In Benton County, Corvallis Housing First is relying on funds from emergency solutions grants through the Department of Housing and Community Services and the “Rural Oregon Continuum of Care,’' which disperses federal housing and urban development dollars to the 28 counties that aren’t considered Orgon’s metropolitan cores.

“We’re (now) able to pay for operational expenses and some facilities renovations through the first 12 months,” Myhre said. “We do have questions about what we are going to do after that.”

Myhre said that her organization was able to garner help from their state and federal representatives — State Rep. Dan Rayfield, D-Corvallis; and Congressman Peter DeFazio — to add an additional $8 million so they can build more transitional apartments on the half-acre lot behind their Project Turnkey property.

In Jackson County, Chad McComas, the executive director of Rogue Retreat, has taken a somewhat different approach than what Project Turnkey has typically seen throughout the state.

The 47-unit motel his organization purchased in the heart of Medford will operate more as transitional housing. They’ll focus on rapid rehousing of wildfire victims — a continued issue following the Almeda Fire that swept through the region at the end of last summer — particularly those within the local Latino community.

Rogue Retreat is currently putting approximately $30,000 into renovations on each unit, 15-16 of which will have small kitchens and basically be studio apartments. The total cost of the project, funded through the Oregon Community Foundation grant, will come in around $2.5 million.

Rogue Retreat is doing the renovations in phases, so currently two-thirds of its units are open for business while one-third of units undergo renovations. They’ll also have recuperative rooms dedicated to outpatient care for unhoused individuals who need to recover after receiving medical care through a partnership with their local Providence Health system.

Beyond those units, the rest of the property will operate much like an apartment complex, with tenants paying a modest rent to fund ongoing wraparound services and case management at the property in order to move residents upward on what McComas describes as the “staircase of housing.”

That rent also helps cover the cost of utilities, building upkeep and an on-site manager. Operating the motel like an apartment complex will also help people rebuild their sense of self sufficiency so they can continue to move forward.

“Whenever they start getting jobs, they start getting income, and they start putting the pieces of their lives back together,” McComas said. “Maybe they get help to get their addiction to start dropping off, maybe their mental health improves, now they can afford a small apartment. So we just keep moving them up the staircase.”

McComas said that the opportunity that Project Turnkey has provided for Rogue Retreat is a “game changer,” one that allows them to take ownership of a strategic property without a massive mortgage hanging over their head.

He said Project Turnkey is a chance for the state to save money. Instead of unhoused Oregonians languishing on the streets, the program has provided another 900-plus beds across the state for people to begin the journey of rebuilding their lives in healthier, more stable environments.

“The cost of having somebody on the street is huge,” he said. “If we get a person housed there’s a better chance that they will now be able to turn their life around and start giving back to society. It’s just a smart thing to do, if not the moral thing to do.”

For Troy and Danette, that’s exactly what the model of Project Turnkey has provided, and they’re grateful to both the state and its partners in identifying a thoughtful solution to support thousands of people like themselves who fall on hard times.

“It’s genius. I mean, It’s just common sense,” Troy said. “In a country as affluent as we are, there’s no reason anybody should not have a roof over their head.”