More than 500 people slept in emergency warming shelters Wednesday night, a day after a storm dumped a foot of snow on Portland and shut down the city’s streets and businesses.
“If you’re out there and you see somebody in distress, we’re guaranteeing shelter capacity for everyone who wants to come inside, and we’re also providing transportation,” said Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler.
Wheeler said that in spite of an extensive outreach effort, some homeless people still may not be aware that shelter is available. He said residents should call 911 and request a welfare check if they know of people camping in their neighborhoods who may need help.
In response to the storm, Portland and Multnomah County have opened emergency cold-weather shelters with 600 new beds available, on top of the 1,200 beds in the city’s year-round homeless shelters.
The shelters are largely staffed by volunteers. The Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office has contributed two vans to help transport people to shelters, and is using its laundry facility to wash blankets.
Wheeler said he personally spent time walking the streets and speaking to people living outside in Old Town and the central east side. He said quite a few of the people he spoke with declined to be taken to a warming center.
“Most of them, as far as I could tell, seemed warm, very capable and able to make those kinds of decisions,” he said. “There were others, to be honest, they didn’t seem like they were in good shape. They still declined shelter, and didn’t want to come in for whatever reason.”
During the storm, Portland police officers have focused on helping stranded drivers and conducting welfare checks on people living on the street.
“We’re encountering two to three dozen people a shift. Some are certainly repeat folks. We haven’t been responding to a lot of other calls,” said Sgt. Pete Simpson, a spokesman for the Portland Police Bureau.
Simpson said about half of the people police have contacted have decided to come to an emergency shelter. He said those who refuse may be concerned about having to leave their pets or belongings, may fear other people, or may not want to be somewhere drugs and alcohol aren’t allowed.
Simpson said officers try to leave people with a list of resources.
“They’ve been making sure to give them the information if they change their mind. For some, they may just not want to go with the police,” Simpson said.
Simpson said a few days ago, the bureau’s behavioral health team determined that a woman living under a tarp in old town was not able to care for herself and was in danger, and took her to a hospital.
The Multnomah County Health Department said it is not aware of any additional deaths from exposure since the storm began.
Four people living on the Portland streets died of hypothermia in the first two weeks of 2017.