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The motels operated by the City/County Joint Office of Homeless Services are intended to slow the spread of the virus.

COURTESY PHOTO: DO GOOD MULTNOMAH - An outdoor space is covered for guests at the newest motel used as a COVID-19 residence by the City/County Joint Office of Homeless Services.As COVID-19 cases and deaths surge in Multnomah County, the City/County Joint Office of Homeless Services has completed moving around 300 vulnerable people from congregate shelters to motels where they can safely isolate.

During the first week of December, adults began moving into the Portland Value Inn-Barbur in Southwest Portland. It is the sixth 24-hour "physical distancing motel shelter" opened by the joint office since June.

"This pandemic has exposed how tenuous and dangerous life is for people without housing, especially for those whose health makes them even more vulnerable to the worst effects of this virus," said County Chair Deborah Kafoury, who led the push to use motels as high-risk shelters. "The county is committed to doing all we can to protect shelter residents from COVID-19, and we've had to take extraordinary measures to do it, but for those hundreds of guests in six motels, it is undoubtedly worth the effort."

City Commissioner Dan Ryan, Portland's liaison to joint office, said he agrees. "As we face down another surge in the COVID-19 pandemic, I am glad to see this sixth high-risk motel shelter open and providing safe and essential shelter for some of our most vulnerable neighbors," Ryan said.

The use of the Barbur motel marks the final step in what's been a months-long, all-hands strategic transformation for Portland and Multnomah County's shelter system in the face of COVID-19. When social distancing requirements reduced shelter capacity early in the pandemic, the joint office and Multnomah County's Emergency Operations Center opened more shelters to preserve the number of year-round shelter beds and to avoid having to put people back out on the street.

The combined total cost for starting up and operating the six physical distancing motel shelters is $1.2 million per month. That includes the block room leases, facilities and maintenance costs, and staffing and support services provided through the joint office's contracts with nonprofit service providers.

At $64 per night, the leases are not the most expensive costs. The services — including staffing and meals — cost more.

"People experiencing homelessness are more likely to be older and/or have underlying health conditions that make them more susceptible to serious/fatal COVID-19 infections. The expense is significant, but it's essential to providing places for people in shelters to go if they have symptoms, and also providing better isolation for a few hundred people assessed/scored as the most vulnerable in our shelter system," according to a release from the office.

Funding currently is provided by the federal CARES Act available to local governments. The federal financing is expected to last at least until June 30, the end of the current fiscal year.

COURTESY PHOTO: JOHS - A service provider clreans and sets up a room at the newest motel provided as COVID-19 housing by the City/County JOINT Office of Homeles Services.

The transitioning began in March when the joint office and the Emergency Operations Center reallocated shelter beds to unoccupied buildings like the Oregon Convention Center and three Portland Park & Recreation community centers. They also enacted other COVID-19 changes, requiring face coverings while creating stricter hygiene and sanitation protocols.

Then in June — anticipating a time like now, when COVID-19 might spread uncontrolled in the community — the joint office and the center began moving beds from those temporary spaces to longer-term motels that offered additional protection. Among other things, the motels provide better isolation for people assessed as having the highest-risk of COVID-19 complications, including death. Risk factors include age, health conditions and being part of disparately affected communities, including communities of color.

And, because the temporary spaces no longer were needed year-round, the joint office was able to vacate the convention center and convert the Mt. Scott and Charles Jordan community centers as seasonal shelters this winter.

Physical-distancing motel shelters offer guests their own bedrooms and bathrooms, along with outdoor common areas. They also add safety by ensuring that doors to rooms open to the outdoors, instead of opening to interior hallways.

The same services provides at shelters also are offered at the motels, including housing navigation, meals, health support and access to counseling and substance use treatment. They also can accommodate couples and pets, and personal belongings, just like traditional shelters do.

The motels are leased by the joint office, which also pays for the services.

The six motels are: Banfield Value Inn, Northeast Portland, operated by Transition Projects, 53 rooms; Chestnut Tree Inn, Southeast Portland, operated by Human Solutions, 58 rooms; Days Inn, Southeast Portland, operated by Do Good Multnomah; 40 rooms; Jamii Program, North Portland, operated by Urban League of Portland, 46 rooms; Motel 6 Gresham, East County, operated by Do Good Multnomah, 43 rooms; and Portland Value Inn, Southwest Portland, operated by Do Good Multnomah, 43 rooms.

The joint office also operates two motels for people who have shown symptoms or tested positive for COVID-19.


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