Portland ice storm drew unprecedented need from unhoused people

By Alex Zielinski (OPB)
Jan. 18, 2024 1:15 a.m.

Multnomah County, the state’s most populous, said it is trying to find ways to serve more people in need in extreme heat and cold events.

Snow falls at West Burnside and Northwest 21st Avenue in Portland around 10:30 a.m. on Saturday.

Snow falls at West Burnside and Northwest 21st Avenue in Portland around 10:30 a.m. on Saturday.

Joni Land / OPB

As Portland begins to thaw from its overnight ice storm, Multnomah County’s efforts to keep its unhoused residents warm have begun to wind down.


The county’s 12 shelters, operated by the county, state agencies and local nonprofits, have offered warm meals and sleeping accommodations to a record number of Portlanders each night as temperatures remained below freezing. On Tuesday night, the county warming shelters housed 1,269 people.

The shelters had intended to close at 8 a.m. Wednesday, but the lingering cold temperatures kept most shelters operating until around noon.

Denis Theriault, a spokesperson for Multnomah County, said deciding when and how to close the shelters is complex, due to the storm’s lingering effects. TriMet MAX and bus lines were operating with limited routes and schedules Wednesday, hampering the ability to easily transport people who stayed at warming shelters to other permanent daytime shelters or outdoor encampments.

Shelter visitors were offered tents, blankets and warm weather clothing as they left into the cold.

“The reality is, we are still sending people back into a typical Portland winter,” said Theriault. “It’s rainy, it’s cold. But it’s at least above freezing.”

The county opens emergency shelters whenever temperatures are forecast to drop below 25 degrees Fahrenheit or below 32 degrees Fahrenheit if accompanied by heavy rain.

This storm saw the county open the largest number of shelters in its history of running warming shelters. It had intended to run 13 shelters, but a burst pipe at a downtown church forced one location to shutter.

In the past, the county has co-managed emergency shelters with the city of Portland. During this storm, the city ceded management duties to Multnomah County. The city, which in the past has offered its community centers and office buildings for emergency shelters, only allowed the county to use one city building — North Portland’s Charles Jordan Community Center — as a shelter space during this storm.

A newly written agreement between the city and county states that the two jurisdictions will complete a “12-month-look back” on emergency shelter plans in the spring to “assess resource needs… and develop a longer-term strategy.”


The county relies heavily on volunteers to operate its shelters — both members of the public and county staff. Theriault said he noticed fewer city staff volunteering at the shelters than during past weather events. While the county was able to keep its shelters operating at full capacity during the past storm, Theriault noted that some volunteer shifts were understaffed, putting extra pressure on those who did show up to help.

“The difference between a full staff and 60% staff… you’re on your feet a lot more with competing priorities,” said Theriault, who worked two overnight shifts at the Charles Jordan Community Center shelter. “You’re taking the trash out, while you’re trying to get someone a coat, while you’re helping check someone in. You find a way to make it work.”

Theriault said the county is continuing to tinker with its shelter program, as extreme weather events become increasingly common due to climate change.

Staff with Multnomah County will continue to visit homeless encampments across the region in the coming days to distribute tents and blankets while checking in on the health of people who weathered the storm outside.

Other nonprofit and volunteer groups have been checking in with unsheltered Portlanders throughout the storm. Cindy Dowds Warmington is a retired nurse who helps run a weekly shower and meal program for people experiencing homelessness out of Rivergate Church in Multnomah Village. Warmington stopped by several homeless encampments in Southwest Portland last weekend to offer rides, food, and information about escaping the cold.

She said many people were unprepared.

“If you don’t have internet access, if you don’t follow the news, you don’t know a storm is coming,” she said. “Until it’s too late.”

Warmington said she encountered capacity issues at several warming shelters, forcing her to drive across town to drop people off. But she praised the operators at 211 — the public information line for social services and emergency response in the Portland area — for helping her navigate the situation.

“They would tell me how many beds were available at each shelter, in real time,” she said. “I know they were getting a ton of calls, but they were patient. It was clear that everyone was trying their best under the circumstances.”

Not everyone managed to find shelter during the storm. Some people don’t feel comfortable in warming shelters, due to prior bad experiences in shelters, mental health issues, or other circumstances. Some remained at outdoor shelters, like the Hygiene4All Hub, a nonprofit-run shelter under the Morrison Bridge in inner Southeast Portland.

Ian Alexander, who manages the Hub, spent the weekend encouraging visitors to go to warming shelters and hotels to stay warm, as the Hub shelter lacks sufficient heating. But one regular visitor, who has claustrophobia, refused to leave his encampment Monday evening. Instead, Alexander said, that person’s friend stayed with him throughout the night to keep them warm, possibly saving his life.

“Seeing people coming together like this is a beautiful thing,” Alexander said. “But it comes with the pain of knowing that we have normalized the conditions that force people to rise to such a heroic level of resilience.”

The Multnomah County medical examiner’s office suspects at least four people have died from hypothermia in Portland since Friday.

Correction: A previous version of this story noted that eight people had died from hypothermia. That figure is statewide. OPB regrets the error.