As the Portland area braces for a potential spread of the new coronavirus, Multnomah County officials have turned their attention to one particularly vulnerable population: the roughly 4,000 people experiencing homelessness throughout the region.

People living on the streets are likely at a higher risk of catching the infectious COVID-19 virus than those with a home. Many are elderly or have underlying medical conditions — groups that appear especially vulnerable to the disease. The city's lack of public bathrooms makes it difficult to regularly wash your hands. And crowded homeless shelters could make for prime territory for the virus to spread.


After the first Oregon case of the virus was confirmed Friday, Multnomah County officials rushed into a series of meetings to come up with plans to mitigate the spread of the virus among the region's homeless population.

On Wednesday, the county sent out the first set of recommendations to shelter providers. Chief among them: Providers should try to make sure people who are coughing sleep in beds at least six feet from those who are not. And if providers run out of space, they can reduce the number of beds in a shelter.

Like the flu, the coronavirus is thought to be spread primarily by people who are within six feet from one another. Recognizing that most shelters don't have enough room to space out all their beds six feet apart, the county is asking shelter providers to focus on spacing out the beds of those who show symptoms of the virus — coughing, fever, shortness of breath. These individuals will also be asked to wear masks.

Shelters could end up serving fewer people under those guidelines. But Denis Theriault, a spokesperson for Multnomah County, said the current thinking is that this will happen through “attrition” — not replacing a bed when people leave the shelter voluntarily. The only instances in which the providers should “strongly consider” asking an individual to leave is if the person is coughing and also refuses to wear a mask.

Theriault said the county is “committed to maintaining services for the same number of people.” So if the number of beds that Portland and Multnomah County fund through the Joint Office of Homeless Services gets reduced, officials will look to provide alternatives elsewhere — potentially through using a tool like rent assistance. Theriault said discussions on this topic are ongoing.

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Transition Projects Inc., the largest provider of shelter services in the region, has temporarily stopped taking in new guests in order to make more space. The nonprofit agency operates nine shelters with roughly 800 people in the system on any given night.

George Devendorf, executive director of Transition Projects, said they made the decision to tap the brakes on intakes after realizing there were almost no empty beds within their shelter system, leaving them with no flexibility to rearrange their rooms.

The move, he said, also “enables us to continue to observe how this situation is unfolding and what additional steps we might have to take as things become more clear.”

Devendorf said, to his knowledge, the agency has never stopped intake before.

Transition Projects is also ‘ramping up’ some of the precautions they take during flu season. This means having more janitors on hand for “around the clock” disinfection work, posting large laminated posters with basic guidance, and asking those who are coughing to wear a face mask — though Devendorf notes the staff will likely not be able to tell if someone is sick from the coronavirus or the seasonal flu.

“Even though there are no confirmed cases yet amongst our staff or anyone we're serving, we're just proceeding with the assumption that the coronavirus is already in and among us and trying to respond accordingly,” he said.

He noted his staff is trying to avoid a situation in which shelter workers become sick and are sent home, making it difficult to run their 24/7 facilities.

The county’s guidance also recommends that people showing symptoms eat in a well-ventilated space as far away as possible from others. If possible, coughing individuals should be separated in common areas, similar to sleeping areas.

Theriault emphasized that, though Multnomah county is preparing, there have not yet been any confirmed cases of the virus within the county.

In King County, Washington, which has seen 10 deaths from the virus, officials have also taken steps to try and mitigate the spread of the disease among the area's sizable homeless population. The head of the county has said they're setting up "modular units" to isolate and treat patients without homes. Officials have reportedly been trying to stockpile hand sanitizer, soap and wipes to hand out to people at homeless camps. And, according to Seattle's website, officials are considering expanding the city's "tiny house" villages.