PORTLAND, Ore. -- As the rain moves in and temperatures drop to near-freezing overnight, officials with the Joint Office of Homeless Services said Thursday they’re gearing up to debut a new, streamlined emergency shelter system in the next couple weeks.
The move comes after last year’s record-setting winter storms forced them to scramble searching for extra space in churches, nonprofits and government buildings.
And while officials never turned anyone away from shelters, not everyone came inside.
Authorities said four homeless people died out in the cold.
“These are really horrible disasters,” said Denis Theriault, spokesman for the joint office.
Theriault said some minor details surrounding the new plan are still being worked out, but much of it centers around making the process to open emergency shelters easier, faster and more predictable.
“It’s not that we didn’t have a plan then,” he said, regarding last winter. “But we went through it, and we learned some things. Then we went through hot weather this summer. We opened cooling centers, we figured that out. We had a fire out in East County. We learned from that."
One aspect of the new strategy, he said, surrounds spreading the news that anyone can open a warming shelter, if they have the space.
They don’t need to register with the city or county.
“We did that during the cooling center issue this summer, and said, ‘You know, if you want to set up your own cooling center, here's the criteria you need,’” he said. “We’re going to make that available.”
Theriault said one snag that’s been harder to solve is the reluctance many campers have to go inside, even amid extreme weather.
To alleviate that pushback, he says, outreach workers have been touching base with campers for months.
They’re also asking people to start noticing and talking to campers who tend to hang out near their homes or places of work.
That way, when severe weather hits, people might feel more comfortable asking campers if they need help or calling 911 if they seem to be in danger.
“Understand their needs. Understand what you can do to help them,” he said. “That’s how we’re going to keep everyone healthy and warm and safe this winter is by everyone checking on their neighbors, too.”
Theriault said the county is planning a press event within the next couple weeks, where they’ll ask for an early surge of winter clothes, gloves, hats and sleeping bags.
They’ll also ask for volunteers who may be interested in training to run an emergency warming shelter.