A special branch of the Washington County Emergency Operations Center has been coordinating with local service providers to help the county's homeless population, whose living circumstances and lack of access to resources makes them particularly vulnerable to COVID-19.
Public health officials have advised Oregonians for weeks to stay home, wash their hands frequently and emphasize wellness by getting enough to eat and sleep, but thousands of Washington County residents experiencing homelessness lack the ability to take such precautions. In addition, severe weather and winter shelters across the county have closed due to staffing shortages amid concerns about COVID-19, resources such as libraries and other public facilities have shut down and many food banks and day centers have closed to limit the spread of the virus.
Annette Evans, homeless programs coordinator with Washington County, said officials have been focused on supporting existing service providers, bolstering outreach to unhoused people, setting up hand washing stations in public spaces and expanding sheltering and temporary housing for the most vulnerable individuals.
"There is a desire in our community that we shelter everyone," Evans said. "We understand that, truly, we understand that. But that does not help us to isolate people and shelter in place and ensure that, if they are healthy, they stay healthy when you bring everybody in. And we don't have enough resources to shelter everyone."
The county received $250,000 in funding from the Oregon Housing & Community Services Department to extend sheltering services for unhoused people considered high-risk who are at least 60 years old or have underlying health conditions.
Part of those funds will go toward reopening Beaverton's severe weather shelter for up to 25 high-risk people through May 31. Nurses will be present to provide health screenings and guests will be served dinner and breakfast. The shelter will implement safety recommendations from public health officials, including maintaining 6-foot spaces between beds, Evans said, noting that the distancing requirement necessarily limits the capacity of the shelter.
People hoping to get into the shelter will need to call an intake system run by Community Action. The intake phone line opened March 23, and officials will ask callers about their needs and put them on a waitlist to get into the shelter if its already at capacity, Evans said.
"If you're a healthy individual, you're homeless, and you're in your 30s, you will not have access to that congregant shelter," Evans said. "You will need to shelter in place."
More than 160 individuals who used several winter shelters in the county this year were elderly and most of them had underlying conditions, Evans said.
The OHSC funds will also go toward providing hotel vouchers to unhoused people so they can safely self-isolate. In coordination with the county public health officials and local hospitals, the county expects to open a respite shelter for people who show symptoms or test positive for COVID-19 on an isolated floor of a hotel.
The county also plans to provide as many as 70 additional shelter beds, but officials haven't yet identified which shelter location or locations will open.
"The more sites you open, the more staffing you need, and that is one of the challenges that resulted in a lot of our winter shelters closing early," Evans said.
With winter shelters in Cornelius and Forest Grove closed, unhoused people in western Washington County who have been told to shelter in place will rely on one day center, located at Open Door Counseling Center, and a system of homelessness outreach run by the Washington County Sheriff's Office and other local police departments.
The county deployed handwashing stations and portable toilets at several locations including at the B-Street Trail in Forest Grove, Open Door Counseling Center in Cornelius, Dairy Creek Park in Hillsboro, The Comfort Zone at South First Street in Hillsboro and Southwest Hall Blvd and Southwest Knoll Drive in Tigard. Evans said the locations were chosen strategically in partnership with local service providers who know where unhoused people frequently gather or camp.
There's a backlog of requests for handwashing stations and portable toilets in the area, and new requests won't be delivered until late April, according to a document from the county emergency operations center.
On March 23, deputies with the Washington County Sheriff's Office began reaching out to unhoused people in Forest Grove. Deputies hope to canvass the entire county.
Deputy Chad Gravley, who is part of the Homeless Outreach Program and Enforcement team, said the goal of the outreach is to provide unhoused people information about public health risks and advisories, do wellness checks, give resources and encourage people to avoid contact with others as much as possible.
"Our ultimate goal is to stop the spread of COVID-19," Gravley said. "We want to make sure they stay put, and we'll come and bring resources to you. We'll come bring you food, check on you periodically. We want the most social distancing that we can get."
By March 26, more than 120 "personal assistance care kits" were provided to unhoused people through the Sheriff's Office outreach. Volunteers with a local chapter of the national Christian ministry Love INC put the kits together. They included hygiene products, water, snacks such as nutrition bars and fruit and flyers in English and Spanish with information about COVID-19. The Girl Scouts of American also donated 600 boxes of cookies to include in the kits.
Gravley said the Sheriff's Office will not attempt to move people camping in public spaces and deputies will record information about people who have been contacted so they can reconnect in the future.
He acknowledged the resources Sheriff's Office is providing doesn't account for all of someone's needs despite the order to isolate as much as possible.
"The resources that they're going to be able to get are limited due to everything being closed," Gravley said. "At the EOC level, we're going to be looking for volunteers to make stuff up. Stuff that doesn't go bad or expire right away, nutrition bars, nutrition packs that we can pass out to these houseless individuals to try to sustain them."
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