In a scramble to provide the recommended six feet of space between residents, Multnomah County is opening a third social-distancing homeless shelter.

Starting Monday, the East Portland Community Center gymnasium will sleep 75 unhoused women who are already in the county’s shelter system. The three social-distancing shelters don’t expand the county’s capacity and are only intended to increase the physical space between existing residents.

The East Portland Community Center gym is set up with 75 evenly spaced cots in order to accommodate residents in the Multnomah County shelter system on March 27, 2020 in Portland, Oregon.

The East Portland Community Center gym is set up with 75 evenly spaced cots in order to accommodate residents in the Multnomah County shelter system on March 27, 2020 in Portland, Oregon.

Jonathan Levinson/OPB

On Friday at EPCC, after plastic had been laid down on the gym floor and cots evenly spaced throughout, about 25 newly-hired staff went through an orientation.

“If you really pour your heart and soul into it you can get ahead of situations. You can change someone’s life,” said Marques Giles, one of the 25 new hires who also has experience managing shelters.

Giles grew up in Portland but currently works as a behavior specialist at an elementary school in Arizona. When the school closed because of the new coronavirus and he saw his hometown needed help, he decided to come back.

Standing in the back of the group is Malachi Hindle. He’s in charge of the county’s social-distancing shelters and was there helping get EPCC ready to open. Hindle said a lot of people are eager to help but experienced hires like Giles are critical.

“It’s hard to get people trained in something where you’re like, ‘Hey, I called you yesterday and now I need you to do it,’” said Hindle. “It’s a big lift because turning a gymnasium into a shelter is challenging. And getting the appropriate staff in there is challenging.”

New hires finish an orientation at the East Portland Community Center days before a new social distancing homeless shelter is scheduled to open to accommodate residents in the Multnomah County shelter system on March 27, 2020 in Portland, Oregon.

New hires finish an orientation at the East Portland Community Center days before a new social distancing homeless shelter is scheduled to open to accommodate residents in the Multnomah County shelter system on March 27, 2020 in Portland, Oregon.

Jonathan Levinson/OPB

Turning the community center into a shelter requires more than just well-spaced cots. Residents need three meals a day, bi-weekly laundry service, janitorial staff, among other requirements. All those must be contracted.

While Oregon Gov. Kate Brown said social distancing isn’t required for shelters, Hindle says existing facilities don’t have enough space to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

“Right now what we’re trying to respond to is our existing homeless shelter providers saying, ‘in order to safely shelter the people that we have, we need to be able to spread out,’” Hindle said. “We need to give people the space … to be distanced and not potentially pass sickness to one another.”

Multnomah County has already converted the Charles Jordan Community Center and the Oregon Convention Center into mixed-gender social-distancing shelters for 120 people each.