Homeless camp fires continue amid cold, as hundreds seek emergency shelter

Thursday night marked the 13th so far this season that operators opened emergency facilities.

PORTLAND, Ore. -- Off of Interstate 84 near Northeast 53rd Avenue, a white plume of smoke rose into the sky.

It was Friday morning, and another homeless camp had caught fire.

By 10 a.m. no one remained at the camp, and there were no known reports of injuries.

Downtown, a melted, charred water bottle lay in the burned remnants of a tent and sleeping bag.

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Campers nearby said it happened a few days prior when the man inside lit a candle, trying to keep warm. He was uninjured, but no one knew where he'd gone.

Howard Howe, who sleeps in a tent half a block down, doubted the man would go to a shelter. He, himself, refuses to.

"It's the smell," he said. "They have bad people who don't shower. It makes me sick."

Shelter operators know plenty of campers living outside feel the same way, but they say efforts to draw them in when temperatures drop are working better than they have before.

Thursday night marked the 13th so far this season that operators opened emergency facilities.

The city's and county's Joint Office of Homeless Services, in conjunction with their nonprofit contractor Transition Projects Inc., run three emergency shelters, providing 300 shelter beds across Portland and Gresham.

A couple hundred more are offered up, courtesy of other community partners like Union Gospel Mission and the Portland Rescue Mission.

Thursday night they were nearing capacity, so officials opened a fourth facility, a county DOJ building on Southeast 122nd Avenue near Stark Street. That provided an extra 125 beds.

Overall 478 people sought shelter that night.

Marc Jolin, director of the Joint Office, says the system itself is improving.

"This year, we've been able to stand up shelter more easily. There's been better coordination among all of our street outreach providers," he said. "We want to make sure that at any point in the night, anyone who shows up has access to a shelter bed."

The gains come after last year's record setting winter, during which emergency shelters opened for more than 30 nights.

Officials admitted getting information about how and where to access empty beds was chaotic, and campers weren't able to easily get transportation across town to shelters, if need be.

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This year, Jolin said TriMet donates a bus on nights where emergency shelters operate to transport people, and campers can call 211 for information.

Friday, Jolin also credited early efforts to find volunteers willing to run emergency shelters and train them before winter started.

"We had hundreds and hundreds of people this year both community members and city county and metro staff go through that training process, so as we expanded the new shelter and opened it up, we were able to recruit those people in to filling the staff shifts," he said.

As he folded up dry blankets and tarps to store during the day, Howe said he'd noticed one improvement in the system.

"There's been a lot of people out giving out blankets and hot food, stuff like that," he said of the outreach teams, who find campers and talk to them face to face about shelters that are available. "They've been keeping us pretty warm."

Directors of the Joint Office are asking for donations for campers this winter.

Info on what and how to donate is listed here.