By David Krogh

Homelessness is a topic with many diverse, yet interconnected aspects. During the winter and holiday season, the issue becomes all the more critical. 

The following are a number of informational snippets about homelessness and sheltering especially relevant at this time.

As of Thanksgiving, there were already about 1,600 shelter beds available at year-round and winter shelters in the area. 

According to Denis Theriault of Multnomah County, the Joint Office of Homeless Services plans to open up additional cold weather emergency shelters which could add an extra 350 beds. 

These emergency shelters are at Bud Clark Commons, 650 NW Irving St.. and Imago Dei, 1302 SE Ankeny St. and Sunrise Center, 18901 E. Burnside St.. in Gresham. 

The Joint Office has established a 211 information line which will tell a caller where shelters are located, their hours of operation and provide a means for requesting a ride to the shelter. 

“If you see someone who looks like they could use some help,” Theriault reminds us, “ask if you can call 211 for them and then stay with them for a few minutes while 211 calls them a taxi.” 

On a similar note, Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler recently posted the following:

“No matter how many days of severe weather we might see, the Joint Office of Homeless Services (JOHS) and emergency management officials in Multnomah County all share a rapid-response plan that can scale up to provide the needed response. 

“The plan is centered on a basic commitment: anyone who needs a warm, dry place will have a warm, dry place to stay.”

Wheeler asks the public to help by calling the police non-emergency number 503.823.3333 if you see someone with no shelter who needs assistance. 

For those without shelter experiencing a mental health crisis, call Multnomah County’s 24 hour crisis line at 503.988.4888. When a severe weather emergency has been declared, call 211 to put those in need of shelter with shelter.

The Oregon Harbor of Hope River District Navigation Center is open for business and has added 100 transitional housing beds for homeless men just off the Broadway Bridge.

Using fabric and plastic construction, the facility has won numerous awards for its architecture and functionality and is working to alleviate the homeless situation.

Operated by Central City Concern, this group is one of many non-profits serving the homeless community.

OPN (Oregon Planners Network) recently discussed HB2916, adopted by the Oregon State Legislature in June 2019 at the request of the League of Oregon Cities. 

This bill allows jurisdictions to establish temporary and transitional housing locations, including the use of campgrounds, for housing assistance to the homeless. 

At this time, City of Salem appears to be considering its use in an attempt to deal with uncontrolled homeless camping in city parks due to its own lack of shelter facilities. 

While other jurisdictions are starting to look at HB2916’s ramifications, it appears doubtful other cities in Oregon will step up to provide for such a facility except as part of a public/private partnership.  

Free Hot Soup, a nonprofit volunteer group that provides free food to those in need in the Director Park area of downtown has been informed by Portland Parks and Recreation it can no longer provide food without first obtaining a City Social Service Permit. 

Subsequently, the Oregon Justice Resource Center has filed a suit against Portland Parks citing the permit requirement as “unconstitutional.” 

One homeless individual indicated that the nearest other homeless food source is the Portland Rescue Mission which tends to get cramped and crowded.

Wapato, Multnomah County’s multi-million dollar jail facility is even closer to heading towards demolition. On Monday, December 2, new owner Gordon Schnitzer hosted Jeffrey McMorris, HUD’s Region 10 administrator for Oregon, Alaska, Idaho and Washington, along with approximately 150 other supporters of Schnitzer’s vision to convert the long-vacant jail into a homeless shelter/transition facility. 

It appears HUD support of a facility so far from downtown Portland is not anticipated. Multnomah County officials have long argued against locating a homeless facility in Wapato since it was intended as a jail, not a shelter or transitional housing. 

The County sold the facility to Schnitzer at a substantial loss of public funds. McMorris stated that HUD would be making no next steps toward converting Wapato unless the will is there at the local level. 

“If the local community sees the vision, I think that’s fine,” he said. “But it’s really not our place to make that call.” With the County in opposition to such a move, it is likely Wapato will just disappear.

County Commissioners have adjusted their homeless services support agreement with Metro and the City of Portland to allow a percentage of tourist dollars to be directed towards homeless services. 

Up until now, the funds have been used to renovate, expand or develop the Oregon Convention Center, Portland’s Center for the Arts, the Hyatt Oregon Convention Center Hotel and what is now Providence Park. However, based on the modified agreement, $2.5 million per year will be earmarked towards homeless services. 

On November 15, Portland City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty announced details about Portland Street Response, a new approach to how the City will be addressing calls for service involving homeless people or others experiencing non-emergency mental-health crises.  

Previously, calls were directed to the police. Under this new program, though, two-person response teams will be directed by the Fire Bureau. These teams will generally consist of a medic and a crisis intervention worker and will be rolled out initially in the Lents area of East Portland.  

Modeled after a similar program in Eugene, this program replaces police officers, who might not have adequate training to deal with homeless or crisis situations, with skilled medical and social services staff who can better address the service needs of those involved.  

Commissioner Hardesty indicated one vehicle will be earmarked towards this program initially in the spring of 2020 and that additional resources can be allocated depending on the success of the program. 

Hardesty added that since 2017, more than half of the arrests in Portland have been of homeless people. 

It is hoped that helping people get the services they need can save the City a great deal of money in emergency response efforts and better serve those in need.