Over the last two months, Multnomah County has seen success spacing out residents in their shelter system by moving some people into buildings that sat empty due to the statewide shutdown: the Charles Jordan Community Center, the East Portland Community Center, the Mt. Scott Community Center and the Oregon Convention Center.
Now with the region preparing to reopen, county leaders say they will need to give these facilities up — likely the community centers first, and, eventually, the convention center as well.
But even as restrictions relax, the threat of a devastating outbreak among the region’s homeless population remains. And the Joint Office of Homeless Services, the city-county office that oversees these temporary shelters, believes it won’t be safe for people to return to the old, pre-pandemic shelters until the threat is diminished.
So the Joint Office has proposed a plan: rent out 495 motel rooms to house people experiencing homelessness until there’s a vaccine for COVID-19.
The majority of these motel rooms would be replacing beds in the community centers and the convention center. The most vulnerable people in the county’s shelter system — such as elderly residents or those with compromised immune systems — would be prioritized for these rooms, according to the Joint Office. The county would also continue to rent “isolation rooms" for people who have either tested positive for the virus or are showing common symptoms.
The plan comes with a steep price tag. Marc Jolin, the director of the Joint Office, told the Portland City Council Tuesday he expects the rooms, along with support services offered to those staying inside, would cost $39.5 million over the next fiscal year.
“This is what it’s going to take for us to be able to do this,” Jolin said. "We will certainly endeavor as time progresses to cut costs down and find efficiencies, but our highest priority right now is to create that safe space for those folks in our congregate settings.”
Jolin presented the idea to city leaders Tuesday during a busy work session intended to help commissioners figure out how they want to spend $114 million Portland received through the federal coronavirus relief package. But the high price tag for motel rooms took the council briefly off track, leaving them in a state of sticker shock.
“It is extraordinarily high,” Mayor Ted Wheeler said, before encouraging the city and county to think more innovatively. Perhaps, he suggested, they should pursue something like the thousands of temporary housing units FEMA distributed after Hurricane Katrina — an operation that included temporary trailers and mobile homes.
“They weren’t glorious ... but they worked. And I'm wondering if this is the time we need to seriously consider a FEMA like response to the crisis on our street,” Wheeler said. “I’m coming to the conclusion that this is exactly what we should be doing.”
Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty also balked at funneling nearly $40 million into motel rooms, which she said would ultimately do nothing to expand the amount of desperately needed shelter space.
“If we’re going to spend $40 million, and we have nothing at the end of it, there’s something fundamentally wrong with our responses,” she said.
Hardesty also had suggestions for a more innovative approach. Greyhound’s old bus terminal in Old Town Chinatown, she noted, now sits empty, as does Northeast Portland’s Concordia University. Financial problems caused the 115-year old school to shut down this spring.
Jolin emphasized to the commissioners that the nearly $40 million wasn’t just for the rooms — it would also pay for additional services that would allow these motels to function as a form of supportive housing. He said the county needs to start providing these services quickly.
“Our challenge right now is that we are responding to an immediate crisis where we don’t have the luxury of time,” he said. “...I don’t want to put forward something that’s unrealistic that leaves us without the resources to keep people safe even as we work through what are the other options.”
There’s one other option in the pipeline. Shannon Callahan, the director of Portland’s Housing Bureau, said the bureau has been looking at potentially buying some of these motel properties with the idea of potentially converting them into permanent affordable housing in the future. She said the bureau and the Joint Office had already visited to some of these hotels.
The City Council is not the only group considering where the county's unhoused population can go once the county reopens. Portland State University's Homelessness Research & Action Collaborative released a survey last week of nearly 100 people experiencing homelessness in the city to gauge where they would prefer to live during the pandemic. A little more than half opted for a hotel or motel. Only 3% said they'd want to live in a shelter.
In a Tuesday panel hosted by the nonprofit Street Roots, stakeholders discussed the results and what they indicated as the best path forward.
Street Roots’ executive director Kaia Sand urged quick action to move unhoused people into currently vacant rooms as unemployment rates jump and threaten to cause a similar uptick among the region’s homeless population. Jules Boykoff, a professor of politics at Pacific University, advocated for the mayor to “commandeer” the region’s hotels and motels, using emergency powers granted under the city’s state of emergency order.
Nick Pearson, the general manager of the Jupiter Hotel, said that while the hotel industry would likely bristle at the use of the word "commandeer," he believed there were avenues for a "win-win" in which the industry would be willing to assist. He said he's in discussions with the county about continuing the partnership to house people with common symptoms of COVID-19 for the upcoming year. The hotel opened up all of the its 81 rooms to people experiencing homelessness in late March.
But despite the potential willingness of hotels to help out, Pearson said the lodging community at-large still had lingering questions about the county’s long-term plans.
“Even having been plugged in it’s been difficult — and it’s not one's fault necessarily — but to get kind of that 10,000 foot, ‘What’s the big picture here?’” he said “ What's the plan? Because I think we all agree that hotel and motel housing is a temporary solution.”