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A county service to provide basic resources to homeless people through a network of mutual aid groups has been reduced.

COURTESY PHOTO: MULTNOMAH COUNTY - An outreach worker with Cascadia Behavioral Healthcare, an organization that contracts with Multnomah County to provide street outreach and navigation, provides a bottle of water to a man during the June 2021 heat wave.Homeless people will find it harder to acquire basic health resources following a reduction in services from Multnomah County's supply center, advocates say.

To support resilience during the pandemic, the county began using its downtown Portland supply center as a hub for volunteer and mutual aid groups to regularly pick up items, including sleeping bags, hygiene kits and medical supplies, to distribute to homeless people.

Earlier this month, the Joint Office of Homeless Services scaled back those operations, telling groups via email it would hold pickups monthly instead of every other week, as it had in the past.

"Though the pandemic and homelessness continue to exist, JOHS now has fewer resources to facilitate the regular distribution of basic needs supplies," wrote Shannon Singleton, interim director of the Joint Office.

Advocates and mutual aid group members say the service reduction is a loss of critical survival resources when many people increasingly face dispossession as Portland ramps up its efforts to remove homeless camps.

Funded by Portland and Multnomah County's federal pandemic relief packages, the joint office's ability to provide basic resources outside of extreme weather events was always going to be temporary, county officials say.

The Joint Office "remains committed to preserving a minimum level of work to provide supplies all year and to work with groups who had not previously accessed supplies from us, even during winter/summer weather events," said Denis Theriault, spokesperson for the county, in an email.

Last year the Joint Office's budget included $3.3 million for the supply center. This year it allocated $1.2 million.

As part of the service reduction, the joint office is discontinuing a waitlist for groups that wanted to be part of the regular supply center pick-up schedule. Also, it's limiting the availability of certain resources, including tents, socks, can openers, sharps containers and many hygiene and medical supplies.

The supply center has a new location, too, moving from its downtown building to one in Northeast Portland.

The changes won't affect the supply center's extreme weather operations, which have proved crucial for providing bottled water and other cooling supplies during this summer's heat waves.

The Joint Office still supports providing basic resources through its contracted outreach and navigation teams, which are able to purchase such supplies, Theriault noted.

But the supply center's service reduction means homeless people who've been reliant on a network of volunteers and mutual aid groups are going to have less access to basic health resources, said Sandra Comstock, director of the nonprofit Hygiene4All.

Comstock's organization operates a homeless services hub in Portland's Central Eastside. Between 80 and 100 people per week use the hub's toilets and shower, and receive clean clothes, bedding, first-aid and basic medical supplies, Comstock said.

The service reduction will have serious public health consequences, she said.

A significant amount of the supplies that Hygiene4All has provided, including bandages, antibiotic ointment, hand sanitizer and tampons, come from the supply center, she said.

"These are things that people need to stay healthy and survive," Comstock said. "Giving these things to people isn't just a benefit for people living on the streets it's a benefit for the broader general public when we're not flooding the emergency room with things that could be handled with small preventative measures."

Compounding the impact is Portland's effort to increase removals of homeless camps where people can safely store their supplies, Comstock said.

After a series of large camp removals in Old Town and Chinatown in May, Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler championed the efforts, saying he would take the approach citywide.

"At the same time as they're reducing critical supplies, the demand is being increased by the system itself," Comstock said.

A spokesperson for Wheeler's office didn't comment when asked about the impact of increasing camp removals while the availability of basic resources decreases.

There's an impact on the trust homeless people put in direct service providers when there's a drop in the essential resources they provide, said Lauren Armony, systemic change organizer with the nonprofit Sisters of the Road.

"There's a tension that arises when it's like, 'Hey, we have these resources, however, now we don't have the same access,'" Armony said. "Direct service organizations face the direct consequences. We're facing the emotional brunt, versus the people who are making these decisions."

She noted that Sisters of the Road, which has regularly picked up resources from the supply center, will be better able to absorb the service change because providing those resources is not the nonprofit's primary operation. The organization runs a low-cost cafe in Old Town.

Another consequence of a drop in resources is that homeless people are forced to make more decisions out of desperation, Armony said, adding that it often leads to them committing what she called "survival crimes" such as theft to acquire needed supplies.

Hygiene4All won't be able to meet the demand for certain supplies with the reduced amounts coming from the supply center, Comstock said.

She's committed to continue offering essential health resources, meaning Hygiene4All could be less able to offer other services, she said.

"We have a shoestring budget, and every penny counts," Comstock said.

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