Politics

Portland and Multnomah County blame each other for emergency shelter shortfalls during winter storm

By Alex Zielinski (OPB)
Jan. 24, 2024 2:39 a.m.

Oregon’s latest winter storm drove a record number of people living outside into emergency warming shelters across the Portland metro region, testing the capacity of the largely volunteer-run system.

A person wearing a sleeping bag walks to Friendly House which opened as an emergency warming shelter on Saturday, Jan. 13, 2024, in Portland, Ore.

A person wearing a sleeping bag walks to Friendly House which opened as an emergency warming shelter on Saturday, Jan. 13, 2024, in Portland, Ore.

Jenny Kane / AP

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To local government officials, the storm tested a new partnership between the city of Portland and Multnomah County on how to operate temporary shelters during extreme weather. The system had clear weaknesses, attracting public criticism for being understaffed and because shelters closed their doors while the city was still experiencing freezing temperatures.

Now, less than a week after the ice storm, leaders of both governments are blaming each other for the system’s shortfalls. It’s only the latest in a series of debates over how the city and county should divide their regional responsibilities.

On Tuesday morning, Mayor Ted Wheeler sent Multnomah County Chair Jessica Vega Pederson an email, via the county’s Director of Emergency Management, asking the county for “equal decision-making power” during weather emergencies, and accusing the county of keeping the city out of conversations.

In her response, Vega Pederson accused the city of Portland of “not stepping up together in equal measure” to help respond to the emergency.

The heated exchange comes two weeks after the county and city signed off on a new “Severe Weather Sheltering Agreement” that laid out expectations for each jurisdiction in the event of a weather emergency. Willamette Week first reported on the agreement. That agreement, which came after more than a year of back-and-forth debate between both jurisdictions, generally gave the county a leadership role in the emergency shelter program.

“The County will lead both contractor and logistical support for severe weather response,” reads the agreement. “Absent extenuating circumstances, the County does not anticipate seeking support from the City.”

The agreement also sets new rules for a system that has grown in recent years, as extreme weather events become more common. That includes protocol for how and when the city will offer up city buildings for shelter use, and how shelters on city property or run by city staff should operate. Specifically, the city requires the county to provide security and “flooring protection” at any shelter housed in a city building.

In a letter sent to Vega Pederson Tuesday morning, Wheeler laid out five additional recommendations on how the county could improve the emergency shelter plan.

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That included “definite and comprehensive security at sites.” He writes that he’s heard that some Portlanders don’t feel safe at these emergency shelters “due to physical altercations, open drug use, folks navigating behavioral health challenges, lack of screening for weapons, etc.” Wheeler said these issues also deter people from volunteering to work at a shelter.

Wheeler’s letter also recommends the county train and recruit volunteers ahead of an emergency, to ensure shelters are adequately staffed. He also suggests identifying spaces where the county can expand shelter capacity quickly in the event of a weather emergency.

The city allowed the county to use one city building as a warming shelter last week — North Portland’s Charles Jordan Community Center. Vega Pederson said that the city initially asked the county to use armed security at the center, but the county refused. It instead staffed the facility with unarmed security guards.

“The coverage was successful,” Vega Pederson wrote Tuesday. She noted that police were only called to the shelters three times during the storm (once due to a fight, another because a visitor refused to leave and a third time for a medical emergency where a man died).

The county relied on its own buildings and ones owned by nonprofits and the state to run the majority of last week’s temporary shelters.

Vega Pedersen writes that the shortcomings of the warming shelters reflect the changes the city made to its agreement with the county. In previous emergencies, Portland city employees offered to drive people to warming shelters, but that role was eliminated in the Jan. 8 agreement. With county staff now filling in that role, the shelters found themselves short-staffed, Vega Pederson wrote. She also noticed a reduction in the number of city staff — including staff with Portland Street Response — on-site to help operate the shelters. And she bemoaned the fact that the county was only able to use one city building for shelter space.

“The city’s involvement, and the resulting consequences, matched what they asked for,” she wrote.

Hayley Blonsley, a mayoral advisor who worked with the county to hammer out this agreement, said what the city asked for was “true partnership” with the county. What the city saw last week, however, felt one-sided. She said the city only received a request from the county to help staff shelters on Saturday, Jan.14, after the storm had begun to wreak havoc on the metro area. Downed trees, power outages and unsafe roads made it impossible for many staff to reach the shelters.

“If they had asked us earlier, we would have been more prepared to help,” Blonsley said.

It’s just one example of how she said the city felt excluded from the process.

“I get that the county’s staff were also challenged,” she said. “But we can’t influence the process if we’re not looped in.”

Wheeler echoed this concern in his letter. He asked that the city be included in calls and other communications shared by the county during an extreme weather event. Vega Pederson offered a different narrative: “We also included them [the city] in this event from the very start.”

Wheeler and Vega Pederson may be able to get their stories straight soon. The two are scheduled to meet Thursday to discuss their concerns.

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