Amid COVID-19, Portland homeless facing 'humanitarian crisis'
Swelling food lines. New faces seeking a hand of charity. Outdoor camps sprouting overnight.
The local ramifications of the global coronavirus pandemic have produced all the trappings of a large-scale disaster for Portland's unhoused population — even as new tools are mustered in response to COVID-19.
The situation is now a "humanitarian crisis," according to nonprofit leaders who serve the unhoused.
"The conditions that people are having to live in, it's pretty severe," said Scott Kerman, executive director of Blanchet House. "And we have to be prepared for the crisis that will follow this one, which is a crisis of food insecurity."
The city-county Joint Office of Homeless Services is set to open the gates of its first temporary outdoor homeless shelter on Southeast Water Avenue on Thursday, April 16 — with two more outposts to begin operations the following Monday.
Each fenced-off shelter is prioritizing one vulnerable group — including the LGBTQ+ community, people of color and older folks — to fill the 45 slots of 12-by-12 tent sites. The sanctioned camps have portable bathrooms and hand-washing stations, and will serve hot meals provided by local nonprofits.
"Our houseless neighbors are vulnerable, so we must do everything in our power to ensure everyone can practice safe physical distancing and take proper hygiene measures," Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler said of the project.
Blanchet House will provide breakfast six days per week, and will hand out two sack lunches on three days per week at the temporary camps. Free Hot Soup, the Free Lunch Collective, and Portland Rescue Mission will round out the schedule. Workers with the Joint Office will distribute them on-site.
Before the crisis, Kerman said about two-thirds of those fed by Blanchet House were regulars, many of them chronically homeless. Now they are serving rising numbers of women, and many who cannot afford food but who are not homeless.
"The number of meals that we're serving has doubled," Kerman said. "We're getting about 9,000 or 10,000 meals out the door each week, which is just insane."
On any given night before the outbreak began, Multnomah County and Portland already provided 1,400 shelter beds and 12,000 rental assistance vouchers.
"That work has continued, even as we've stretched to respond to COVID," said Denis Theriault, a spokesman for the joint office.
"Beyond spreading out our shelters and creating new motel programs for people with symptoms, adding bathrooms, and creating new outdoor emergency shelters, we've invested in the gear our outreach teams need to help thousands of people manage through this crisis," he added.
The laundry list of supplies given out since the infection began grows longer every day.
The Joint Office said its outreach teams have since early March distributed more than 2,550 blankets, 200 tents, 1,620 gallons of water, 324 sleeping bags, 13 toilet tents, 77 cell phones, 1,885 hygiene bags, 4,575 face coverings, 4,000 laminated ID cards, 350 pounds of dog food and 27,044 two-ounce bottles of hand sanitizer, as well as many other items, to homeless living at shelters or via nonprofit groups.
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