Volunteers across Multnomah County help hundreds of people find warm, dry places to sleep during winter storms

Thanks to support from dozens of volunteers, warming centers managed by Multnomah County and the Joint Office of Homeless Services last week provided safe places to sleep for hundreds of people who otherwise would have faced a night outside in freezing cold and inches of snow.

Severe weather shelters opened for five days, from Sunday night, Feb. 18, through Thursday night, Feb. 22 -- nearly doubling the amount of days this season in which the shelters were active.

On Feb. 22, the busiest night of that stretch, 361 people took refuge across four warming centers operated by the Joint Office and its contracted nonprofit partner, Transition Projects. Those sites offered more than 400 beds combined. And community-led shelter sites offered spots for several dozen more people.

Overall, nearly 50 County employees stepped up to help out, joining dozens of community volunteers, including several volunteers from the City of Portland and Metro. Those volunteers worked alongside staffers from the Joint Office, Multnomah County Emergency Management, the Portland Bureau of Emergency Management, the Department of County Human Services, and the County’s finance and facilities teams.

They took shifts that lasted deep into the night or showed up in the pre-dawn dark, some offering friendly faces and providing safety while people slept, with others working to set up the spaces up at night and then cleaning them in the morning.

In addition, the Health Department provided more than a dozen Medical Reserve Corps volunteers who spent time at the warming centers assessing medical concerns. And Neighborhood Emergency Team volunteers, trained for disaster response by Portland’s fire and emergency bureaus, also pitched in.

“This is what it looks like when a community comes together to show just how much it cares,” Chair Deborah Kafoury said. “I’m proud and grateful that so many county employees answered our call for help, knowing they’d miss time with their families, or have to leave warm beds of their own, so they could save lives.”

Wide-ranging and evolving response

The response grew as cold conditions lingered, as snow piled up some nights -- and as more and more people needed a dry and warm place to sleep off the streets.

The Joint Office and Transition Projects initially opened three warming centers with room for more than 300 people, at Bud Clark Commons downtown, at Imago Dei in Southeast Portland and at Sunrise Center in Gresham. Those three warming centers are always the first to open when severe weather is declared.

But those sites were filling up fast. By Tuesday night, Feb. 20, a fourth warming center opened at a Department of Community Justice building near SE 122nd Avenue and Salmon. Staff from the Joint Office, County Human Services and Emergency Management had pre-emptively staged supplies at the site earlier in the season in case it was needed.

As those shelters opened, 211info shared information about which places were open, and when, online, over the phone and through an app. 211info also helped arrange transportation to shelters as needed, working directly with people in need or with concerned residents calling on behalf of someone in need.

Alongside that work, outreach teams, some who contract with the Joint Office, others that work independently, visited camps to offer supplies, spread the word about warming centers, and check on vulnerable people as they navigated potentially deadly cold and damp conditions. Portland police officers and Multnomah County sheriff’s deputies also shared resources and took people to shelter.

The commitment was to provide shelter for anyone who needed it, and to reach as many people as possible with that offer.

Several other organizations, from faith groups to nonprofits to neighborhood groups, also opened warming centers -- including Union Gospel Mission in downtown, St. Peter & Paul Episcopal in Montavilla, and All One Community, which hosted a shelter at Portsmouth Union Church near St. Johns.

“Every bed provided, every visit by an outreach worker, every ride offered to a shelter -- they all made a difference last week,” said Marc Jolin, the Joint Office’s director. “It’s humbling and inspiring to see so many people doing whatever it takes to save lives.”   

Preparations before and after severe weather

The response to severe weather starts well before snow piles past an inch, or temperatures fall below 25 degrees, the most likely thresholds for when warming centers should open.

The Joint Office supports nearly 300 seasonal winter beds in Multnomah County from November through March, no matter the conditions outside. And those beds join nearly 1,400 other publicly supported shelter beds open year-round. Beds that open during severe weather are in addition to those combined 1,700 beds.

This year, the Joint Office and its partners also put out a call for donations and volunteers in early November, weeks before the first night of severe weather this season, on Dec. 10, 2017. Information for both can be found at 211info.org/donations.

Having volunteers trained and ready made it easier to quickly find help for warming centers once cold and snow descended on the region. And having an ample reserve of life-saving winter gear meant outreach teams could quickly get gear -- hats, gloves, socks, tarps, sleeping bags -- out to those in need once the weather turned.

Last week’s long and serious cold snap cut deeply into that reserve. But community members found yet another way to step up and save lives: As providers renewed their call for supplies, with help from media partners, fresh donations came in.   

“We definitely saw an uptick in donations with the media coverage,” said Shannon Singleton of JOIN, one of the agencies collecting supplies and providing street outreach. She said a woman and her son bought gear and dropped it off after the boy said he wanted to do something for people sleeping in the snow.

“It was very sweet,” Singleton said, “and he was super excited to know it was going to folks outside that night.”