In Bend, the only emergency overnight shelter closes before sunrise. Some guests move to a daytime warming shelter about a mile away. Others, like 70-year old John Steele, wait outside until the doors open again in the evening.
“I have trouble moving, so it takes me a long time to go from point A to point B,” Steele said, seated next to a walking stick and bundled in a hat and scarf.
He said he passes the daylight hours snoozing under a heap of old sleeping bags, people-watching, reading or appreciating the beauty of snow falling through city lights.
During his wait Monday, the thermostat outside hovered around 28 degrees, with even colder days ahead. Extreme winter weather is forecast for much of Oregon through next weekend, as service providers in Multnomah and Deschutes counties scramble to help people experiencing homelessness survive.
In Central Oregon, where cold, snowy winters are typical, the emergency shelter hosting Steele has been near or at capacity recently, an organizer said. The facility in East Bend isn’t staffed to run 24/7. Starting Tuesday, volunteers at a church about a mile away are opening an ad hoc shelter to meet a growing need during the freezing days.
In Portland and Multnomah County, where wintry conditions prompted an emergency declaration last week, leaders are calling for more people to help out in six emergency shelters now open 24 hours a day.
On both sides of the Cascades, the emergency measures require volunteers and donations, as people without housing navigate the gaps in what help is available.
Staying warm in Central Oregon
Steele said he doesn’t usually rely on homeless services.
“I’ve lived in my van for the last 11 years,” he said.
Normally, he would sleep inside the vehicle, staying warm with a propane heater. Then, three weeks ago, the van broke down at a remote campsite outside Bend.
“Then, the snow hit, and people with the conventional tow trucks didn’t really want to go out there,” he said.
Waiting outside the night shelter, Steele was grateful to have toasty feet, thanks to boot warmers he got from organizers inside. Hats, gloves, socks, hand warmers and bottled water are helpful donations, the shelter manager said.
Steele said he’s reluctant to take these supplies, or occupy a shelter bed in a region with so few to go around.
“Because there’s people that are in a lot worse condition than I’m in,” he said. “My ill-fated logic is that if I come here, then that takes the space away from someone that might really need it.”
Lately, the Bend emergency shelter has been averaging more than 80 guests a night, according to its manager John Lodise, director of emergency services for Shepherd’s House Ministries.
“It’s getting busier and busier,” Lodise said, noting that full capacity in the shelter is 90 guests.
This week, Central Oregon daytime highs are forecast in the 20s with lows in the teens. Wind chill could plunge those nighttime lows below 0 degrees, according to the National Weather Service.
“If people need to get out of the cold, and we don’t have room to give them a bed, we could still let them into the building and give them warming,” Lodise said.
The Bend overnight emergency shelter is at 275 NE 2nd St., and is open 3 p.m. to 7 a.m. during the extremely cold weather. Normally, the shelter opens at 6 p.m. In Redmond, an overnight facility is available 6 p.m. to 6 a.m., at Mountainview Fellowship Church at 1475 SW 35th St. Guests are allowed to bring pets at both locations.
Lodise said these shelters don’t have the capacity to safely operate 24 hours a day.
“We would be overwhelmed and it would sort of jeopardize how we need to operate safely for the overnight shelter,” he said.
The Bend shelter opened in November 2020 through a partnership between the city, and nonprofits Shepherd’s House Ministries and NeighborImpact. This contract provides for just two staff members during the day, Lodise said.
“There’s no way, especially in the middle of the holidays, to suddenly find a whole group of people who are just gonna come and help us do this,” he said.
In Bend, Lodise said people can warm up during the day at the following locations near the overnight shelter: the Masonic Lodge Peer Center, 1036 NE 8th St.; the Cascade Peer Self-Care Center, 1125 NW Harriman St.; and Tuesday through Thursday, at First Presbyterian Church, 230 NE 9th St.
In Redmond, a daytime warming shelter is open Tuesday through Thursday at 1350 S. Hwy 97, in a building formerly belonging to Grace Gate Church.
As of Monday afternoon, there was no transportation system in place to shuttle people between the Bend night shelter and the day warming centers, all of which are about a mile away.
“We’re working hard on those logistics,” said Morgan Schmidt, a community organizer active with First Presbyterian Church. “If we have to, I’ll just drive people back and forth.”
The church’s doors open Tuesday, with the effort relying on donations and about 15 volunteers each day. They’re organized through the Facebook group, Pandemic Partners - Bend.
“We’re just kind of doing this the scrappy way… It’s a community effort,” said Schmidt, who founded the social media group in March 2020.
She worried most about helping people don’t come to shelters at all during the extreme weather.
“Oftentimes folks have to make a really hard choice between leaving their camp and accessing shelter… It’s a really difficult decision because they are not sure that their home will be intact when they return,” she said.
County health workers are coordinating with homeless advocates and local shelters to make sure donated supplies reach encampments that can’t access day or overnight shelters, said Molly Wells Darling, a licensed clinical social worker and program manager with Deschutes County.
“We have been in communication with Forest Service and [the Deschutes County Sheriff’s Office] to assure that they are aware of resources and have access to additional donations to assist with basic needs,” Wells Darling wrote in an email.
Volunteers needed in Portland and Multnomah County
As of Sunday night, Multnomah County has opened a total of 390 emergency beds spread out over six shelters. County officials say they were able to fill about four-fifths of the volunteer shifts, primarily by city and county employees.
With more shelters expected to open in the coming days, Commissioner Dan Ryan said they’re in dire need of more people to help out.
“There’s a good chance that we’ll need to open up additional shelters and the only thing that would hold us back from opening them is not having enough volunteers,” said Ryan, who volunteered at the 70-bed shelter at the Portland Building Monday morning.
Ryan said the Portland Building was at capacity during his shift, which ran from 6:30 through 11:15 a.m. Guests who came after all the beds were taken were transported to a new shelter opening on 120 SE Market.
At least six shelters were open Monday. That includes the new shelter opening on Market street near the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, as well as The Salvation Army at 5335 N. Williams Ave.; the Portland Building at 1120 SW 5th Ave.; the Mt. Scott Community Center at 5530 SE 72nd Ave.; and the East Portland Community Center 740 SE 106th Ave. Reynolds High School will also open Monday as a severe weather shelter at 8 p.m., replacing the temporary shelter at the Sunrise Center, which closed Monday.
In the normally rainy and temperate Portland metro area, forecasters are predicting below freezing temperatures to continue through Monday night with up to 3 inches of new snow falling in the Portland area.
Both Portland and Multnomah county declared a state of emergency on Saturday. Officials said the declaration would both underscore the danger that freezing temperatures presented to people living outside and allow officials to open up new shelters faster.
Going into Christmas weekend, Multnomah County health officer Jennifer Vines warned people to look out for warning signs of hypothermia including shivering, slurred speech, and drowsiness. The county reported one possible hypothermia death on Christmas day. Officials do not believe the person was homeless.
Combined, the emergency shelters have been operating at about three-quarters capacity. On Saturday night, officials say 75% of beds across the five shelters were occupied. On Sunday, after a sixth shelter opened up at Market Street, 63% of the beds were filled.
More sites in the Portland area are expected to open in the coming days, including one at the Oregon Convention Center. Volunteers can sign up for shifts at any of the shelters here.
People can call 211 to arrange free rides to and from any of the shelters. TriMet will also be offering free fares for anyone trying to get to a shelter throughout the county’s state of emergency. To ride for free, TriMet spokesperson Tia York said people just need to let the bus driver know they are headed to a warming center.
County spokesperson Kate Yeiser said 211 is not reporting long hold times for people looking for rides. Yeiser said 211 has received roughly 50 requests for rides since Saturday and have dispatched cabs and Ubers to callers when possible. If none are available, Portland officials will dispatch a team to pick people up and bring them to shelter.