Rockwood cooling shelter offers relief from 100-degree heat
With temperatures in the 90s and rising, Shirley Lopez sat on her walker in the shade outside the Sunrise Center.
"I haven't slept in days," the 61-year-old said.
She was one of several people eagerly waiting to go inside the community center that was about to open as an overnight cooling shelter in Gresham's Rockwood neighborhood Tuesday, July 26.
The day before, Multnomah County officials announced the Sunrise Center, three other overnight shelters in Portland and a day center would open as temperatures threatened to reach triple digits.
Although the hottest temperatures were expected Tuesday, an excessive heat warning was in effect for the Portland area through Saturday, July 30.
Daytime highs were forecasted to be in the high 90s for the rest of the week, according to the National Weather Service. Overnight temperatures are high as well — in the 70s dipping into the high 60s.
The heatwave stretched across the state — Gov. Kate Brown declared a state of emergency Tuesday for 25 counties, including Multnomah County, where local emergency declarations had been issued days before.
Multnomah County officials said Tuesday that the overnight cooling shelters, with air conditioning and capacity for 245 people, would stay open at least through Thursday morning, July 28. They plan to monitor weather forecasts and decide whether to keep the resources available after Thursday.
Lopez said she was relieved to be able to stay in the Sunrise Center overnight because she has been living outside for days. She doesn't feel safe around her neighbors at her apartment in Southeast Portland, she said, adding that they recently tried to break in.
She said she's working with a Section 8 housing program specialist to find another place to live.
Lopez spent most of Monday night, July 25, riding a MAX train to escape the heat, she said. She got off near the airport after another passenger started throwing objects, she added.
She learned about the overnight shelter from staff at the Rose Haven Day Shelter in Northwest Portland, where she received food, water and air conditioning earlier on Tuesday, she said.
"My main goal here is just to get inside and have a cool place to sleep," Lopez said.
When the shelter opened, Lopez took a bottle of water and picked out a change of clothes shelter staff made available.
Then she found a cot in the shelter's sleeping area and was laying down shortly afterward.
It's common for people to enter a shelter in the middle of the day during a heatwave and immediately try to sleep, said Matthew McCarl, community engagement and action director for Cultivate Initiatives. The nonprofit homeless service provider hosted the shelter in partnership with the county.
"One of the biggest things you see is just the heat exhaustion," McCarl said.
Several shelter guests' first stop was the bathroom, and for others, it was to sign up on a schedule to take a shower in Cultivate's mobile shower trailer.
"Everybody gets irritable when they're hot," McCarl said. "Sometimes people come in with quite elevated moods. There are times when we have to do some de-escalation and handle some issues, but this really brings things down. It has been really awesome just to see how much a place that's safe, cool and full of supportive people can help."
After asking for a water bowl for her dog, Maranda C. said the last few days of heat "have been hell."
She said she's been homeless off and on for about four years and rarely seeks out shelter, adding that she has "a hard time asking for help."
But when it became clear temperatures would be dangerous for her dog, Savannah, she decided to come to the Sunrise Center.
"I've been giving all my water to her," she said.
Cultivate hosted a cooling shelter at the Sunrise Center during last year's "heat dome" event. McCarl said it's a life-saving resource for both unhoused and housed people who don't have air conditioning.
Nursing students from Concordia University were at the shelter to offer medical attention to guests.
Sixty-nine people died of hyperthermia, or excessive heat, during the June 2021 heat event in Multnomah County. Additionally, deaths from all causes were double normal levels for that period of time, according to a report the county recently released.
Climate experts say the heat event would have been impossible without human-caused climate change.
In response to an increasing frequency of extreme heat events, Multnomah County and Portland have been stepping up to deliver air conditioning units to vulnerable people who don't have them.
By Saturday, July 23, county officials had installed 92 air conditioning units as part of a spring purchase of 180 units. The county's recently adopted budget included funding to purchase 1,000 additional units. Portland launched a similar program this year that was expected to provide 15,000 air conditioning units.
For updates on cooling sites and other heatwave-related information, visit multco.us/hot.
Follow on Twitter
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.