For Portlanders without a permanent place to live, frigid temperatures can be dangerous, even deadly. Several sites where people living in tents often congregate in North and Southeast Portland were abandoned on Thursday as temperatures plunged into the 20s and winds picked up.
Rebecca Martell, 51, lives in a van she shares with her boyfriend in Southeast Portland and she had decided to stay put.
“Actually, I was pretty warm — we had heat, so it was good,” she said. “We’re OK, we’ve got everything. Water, clothing, we’ve got everything.”
Martell, who has been without a permanent address for 10 years, said she had considered going to a shelter, but preferred to stay in her own space as long as she could stay warm there. They had heat in the van during the surprise storm on Wednesday night, she said, and people had stopped by to bring her blankets and sweatshirts and other supplies on Thursday.
That’s exactly the type of assistance housed neighbors can provide, said Rachel Pearl, deputy director of the Multnomah County Department of Human Services.
“We really all need to be paying attention to each other and looking out for each other,” Pearl told OPB’s Dave Miller in a Thursday interview on “Think Out Loud.” “Folks saw that [Wednesday] night with just anyone who was trying to just commute or get home. Never mind if you’re living outside.”
The Multnomah County medical examiner’s office is investigating one person’s death that may have been caused by hypothermia.
Many people who live outside did choose to find space at a warming shelter. Trina Ragland, 27, said she’s from the Midwest, so she’s used to the cold, but Thursday she was grateful for the chance to come inside and get warm.
“I was walking around all morning for 10 hours,” she said. “Your body feels numb, to where you just can’t walk anymore. I called 211 and they ended up giving me a ride here.”
Multnomah County opened warming shelters at the onset of frigid weather Wednesday night. Three were open all day on Thursday. Three additional shelters were open overnight, bringing capacity to 700 beds. The overnight shelters were not set to close until at least 10 a.m. on Saturday.
The most urgent need listed on the county’s Care for When It’s Cold page was for volunteers to help staff warming centers on Friday, as they will be open all day. Due to continued low temperatures, they will be open through at least 10 a.m. Saturday.
TriMet bus service will provide free rides to people needing shelter, though riders should expect route changes and delays while roads remain icy. For current information on what shelters are available, call 211 or visit the county website.
Thursday afternoon at the Salvation Army Center on North Williams Avenue, Ragland was one of about 150 guests, according to one volunteer’s estimate. The shelter was still accepting additional people at that time.
Cold weather standards set by the county call for warming centers to be opened any time the forecasted temperatures fall below 25 degrees Fahrenheit, there is more than 1 inch of snow expected, or the temperature falls below 32 degrees with a driving rain.
Will Osiris, who said he’s been living outside for several years, also made his way to the Salvation Army warming center on Thursday. While he appreciates the centers when they’re open, Osiris said Portland should keep them open all the time, not just when it gets super cold out.
“If it rains and it’s wet, it’s horrible for a lot of people,” Osiris said Thursday. “If you’re wet and cold and you don’t have anything, it’s a lot worse.”
In 2021, the most recent year for which Multnomah County has published records, 193 people died without a home of their own. Four unhoused people died during the heat dome that year and eight died of hypothermia, according to county data.