Homeless helpers brace for long winter
Homeless people in the Portland area survived the first big spate of cold winter weather, officials say, but now the local system of shelters and other assistance is bracing for more cold and more wet.
With an even gloomier forecast looming next week, homeless services workers are resigning themselves to the fact that the relatively temperate weather of earlier in the winter is over.
The city of Portland and Multnomah County work together to provide severe weather shelter beds at three locations: Bud Clark Commons (650 N.W. Irving, in Portland), Imago Dei (1302 S.E. Ankeny, in Portland) and Sunrise Center (18901 E. Burnside, in Gresham).
When those hit overflow conditions of needing more than 325 beds, officials open up Mount Scott Community Center (5530 S.E. 72nd Ave. in Portland) for another 88 beds.
And the system worked well last week, with shelter and outreach workers geared up and ready for the first blast of cold, according to local nonprofit officials.
"What I've heard from the joint staff who were doing severe weather outreach this weekend was that things went well," Quinn Colling of the Portland nonprofit JOIN said on Monday.
"There was a large amount of coordination that happened last week making sure agencies had the gear to get out to folks, that agencies had enough people letting (homeless) people know the shelters were open."
Homeless services workers also received a big boost from the public. The county encouraged people to buy and donate cold-weather gear, including from a list on Amazon, and donations rose last week and peaked on Monday, when JOIN received four truckloads of donations.
Each truck included 50 to 100 packages, most of them with multiple items, said Sophie Jaggi, JOIN's development director. "We received about 200 sleeping bags, 200 or so tarps, gloves, hats, protein bars, hot handwarmers and footwarmers — so yeah, just really the essential cold-weather needs."
"The reality is donations make a big difference and help stretch the funding out," said Denis Theriault, communications coordinator for the city-county homeless services office. "People have really come through."
The number of people using publicly funded shelters steadily climbed last week from about 100 earlier in the week to more than 340 on the night of Saturday, Feb. 9, according to Theriault.
That night, following snow that hit the region Friday and early Saturday, officials opened the Mount Scott Community Center as a shelter for the first time.
More cold weather ahead
Forecasts call for rain and cold weather to continue, and snow to return to the area on Sunday. Snow showers and sub-freezing temperatures are expected to hit repeatedly next week.
"Up until this week it didn't feel like the worst of winter," Theriault said Monday.
He said the goal is to keep the severe weather beds open because homeless people eventually will give up on camping outside.
The more the weather goes on like this, "the more people wear out and come in. Because at some point they just can't tough it out any more than they have been."
Colling agreed, saying that for the short term, the system appears to be fulfilling people's needs. But at some point the rain ends up being inescapable.
"We might end up needing more gear if this thing continues to be this bad," he said. "Even though we're getting people tarps and dry gear, it's hard with all the rain to make sure that people's stuff stays dry. And it takes people's stuff a while to dry out in these conditions."
The city-county office is encouraging people to go to 211info.org/donations to see how they can help.