It wasn't easy for Bruce Lazott to leave the camp he built near Dairy Creek on the western edge of Hillsboro in the months after the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
Lazott, 39, who is chronically homeless, had set up a kitchen and even a stereo system at the camp using a generator, according to Kim Marshall, director of Washington County Project Homeless Connect.
The nonprofit has been offering services, including a winter shelter, to unhoused people for years. Now, Marshall and other Project Homeless Connect staff are running a camp in partnership with Washington County at a currently unused parking lot of Westside Commons, formerly known as the Washington County Fair Complex in Hillsboro.
"He was really comfortable in his situation," Marshall said of Lazott, who now resides at the county's camp called Safe Sleep Village.
Thousands of unhoused people live in Washington County. County officials hope Safe Sleep Village will help prevent a coronavirus outbreak in a vulnerable homeless population — a risk that will require public health officials' attention well into winter, as cold weather prompts the need for indoor sheltering. Meanwhile, housing experts warn economic stress as a result of the pandemic could trigger a sharp increase in homelessness.
By June, temporary indoor homeless shelters in Beaverton and Hillsboro had closed. The county opened the temporary shelters in April to provide services to unhoused people as COVID-19 cases rose and other service providers and public buildings shut their doors.
Although the shelters served 162 particularly vulnerable people such as the elderly and those with health conditions, four unofficial camps on public property in Hillsboro and unincorporated county land grew during late spring.
County officials say they spent two months looking for a suitable location to open Safe Sleep Village, specifically to move people out of the four unofficial camps, which were becoming an outbreak risk.
Safe Sleep Village opened in early August, providing space for 50 tents with ample separation and using a nearby county building to provide bathrooms, showers and three meals a day. It's scheduled to close Dec. 1, when county officials will work to transition campers into five winter shelters across the county.
One of the unofficial camps with a growing number of unhoused people was at Dairy Creek Park, where Lazott set up his space.
"It was like, 'Oh, god, what do we do,' you know, everything shut down," Lazott said. It was hard to find a place to charge his phone and receive a meal, he said.
Lazott says the Dairy Creek camp he built provided a refuge for a while, but he likes Safe Sleep Village more.
On a slightly cooler day after a recent heatwave, Lazott was excited to hear campers would soon have canopies to stretch over their tents ahead of fall rain.
"You don't get harassed by the cops. Coming here I get a hot shower, three meals a day, which for a lot of homeless, that's hard to do. It's safety," he said, adding that he doesn't worry about his belongings getting stolen.
Since 1999, Lazott has been convicted of several misdemeanors, court records show. In 2003, he was convicted of felony third-degree rape. The victim was 16 years old.
Lazott says being unhoused for the past four years has been rough.
But things are starting to look up. He said he has been working 20 to 30 hours a week at a gas station and he's trying to acquire housing with the help of Luke-Dorf, a Tigard-based mental health services and outpatient treatment agency.
"If it wasn't for this place opening up, I don't know where I'd be," Lazott said of Safe Sleep Village.
Marshall says Lazott has been helpful trying to convince other unhoused people still camping around Dairy Creek to move to the county's camp.
The number of people who have moved to the county facility in the first few weeks is about half of its capacity, said Amanda Terpening, who has been overseeing meal service and other day-to-day operations at the camp for Project Homeless Connect.
"I just make sure it's safe and everybody follows the rules," Terpening said.
She said it's hard to turn away some unhoused people who come to the camp. The county is only permitting people who were camping at the four unofficial camps to stay at Safe Sleep Village.
The county's work to prevent an outbreak of COVID-19 among homeless populations has worked. Only a handful of unhoused people have tested positive for COVID-19 since it first appeared in the area, says Marni Kuyl, director of the county Department of Health and Human Services.
The county has worked with local organizations to provide food to unhoused people across the county, given hotel vouchers for elderly or disabled people, and opened a respite shelter at a designated Hillsboro hotel for unhoused people who show COVID-19 symptoms.
Kuyl says if Safe Sleep Village reaches capacity and there are still unofficial camps that pose a risk for COVID-19 spreading, the county would consider expanding the operation.
If unofficial camps continue to pose a risk and people are unwilling to transition into available facilities, the county will work with law enforcement partners to clear people out of the camps, Kuyl said.
The Hillsboro Police Department already has cleared people out of several camps on public property, including at Dairy Creek Park, giving them multiple weeks notice and pointing them to resources such as Safe Sleep Village, said Eric Bunday, spokesman for the department.
"Our goal is to connect them to services," Bunday said. "They are illegal camps."
Marshall said Safe Sleep Village staff have been working with campers, many of whom are known to staff from the winter shelter, at other unofficial locations to encourage them to transition to Safe Sleep Village.
Annette Evans, homeless program manager for the county, says before Safe Sleep Village closes, the county will work to make sure the five planned winter shelter facilities are prepared to handle sheltering this year.
Shelter managers and other service providers have worried about whether they will have the necessary resources to safely provide shelters, where sanitation and social-distancing can be difficult to maintain.
"The county's public health staff are a critical partner in this effort to open and operate safe shelters," Evans said. "The county's Severe Weather Shelter Response Plan will be amended to include COVID-19 response protocols as outlined by the (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and training will be required for all paid and volunteer shelter staff prior to winter shelters opening."
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