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Portland opens three outdoor homeless camps to try to contain spread of coronavirus

The city will provide sleeping bags and tents to ensure they are clean and hygienic.
A homeless camp on ODOT land in Portland, KGW 2018

PORTLAND, Ore. — Portland will open three organized camps for homeless people during coronavirus -- an unprecedented step for a city that has long resisted sanctioned camping.

The three sites -- two on Southeast Water Avenue and one near the westside base of Broadway Bridge -- will also group residents in a way that has rarely been done in Portland shelters. One site will give priority to LGBTQ people and one for people of color. Anyone who wants the services specific to those sites will also be allowed to camp there. The third site will be for everyone, with an emphasis on older people.

Each location will have 45 tents on platforms with cots inside for an individual person or couple. The city will provide sleeping bags and tents to ensure they are clean and hygienic. People will be able to store their belongings, including their own tents and sleeping bags, while staying at the camp.

The camps are intended to be temporary measures to group people near bathrooms, showers and other amenities to help insulate them from the spread of COVID-19. Each tent will be on a 12-foot-by-12-foot plot of land. Each of the three locations will be fenced off from the public.

Officials say the camps will comply with social distancing measures and will be routinely disinfected.

Homeless people are among the most vulnerable to COVID-19 because many have respiratory infections and weakened immune systems from harsh living conditions. They also have few resources to stay hygienic enough to prevent illness and no place to go to recover in isolation.

Two homeless people in Multnomah County have tested positive for COVID-19. Throughout the state, homeless people make up less than 1% of all cases.

While some states, such as California, have pushed money to local jurisdictions to house as many homeless people as possible in motel rooms and other rooms, this is Portland’s approach to try to help people living outside stay safe.

“The reality is that a stay-at-home order leaves those without homes to return to behind, and we can’t let that happen,” said Portland Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty. “While the housed community can take refuge in their homes and have the bulk of their needs met during this time, our houseless neighbors have lost the many resources and support networks they depended on.”

The nonprofit homeless services provider JOIN will operate the camps. Staff will be on hand to help clean the sites and provide services to people staying there. JOIN operates long-standing Dignity Village, a self-run village for homeless people in Northeast Portland. There, members of the village pay $50 membership dues and split chores and costs.

Dignity Village is one of two organized camps that has earned city approval to remain.

“We’ve heard over and over that social distancing is critically important to help slow the spread of the virus,” said JOIN’s executive director Katrina Holland. “For our neighbors that haven’t been able to get into housing or shelter right now, we can’t just leave them without any options.”

The city-county Joint Office of Homeless Services will serve as the funding body for the camps, but the planning and funding comes from the city of Portland.

“We’re all in this together so we must do everything in our power to ensure everyone can practice safe physical distancing and take proper hygiene measures,” said Mayor Ted Wheeler.

The Joint Office and Multnomah County have spearheaded much of the homeless response during COVID-19.

They have opened five shelters, in both large group settings and in motels. They have also mobilized outreach workers and others to visit homeless camps, distributing hygiene supplies and information about COVID-19.

The three outdoor campsites will be the first new capacity added to Portland’s homeless shelter system since the beginning of COVID-19. The temporary shelters opened to allow physical distancing for people who were already staying in existing shelters.

Officials said they hope that people can now start moving through the shelters into housing as they normally would, freeing up beds. However, they have found people are staying longer in shelter than normal.

The new campsites will be reservation-only and not accept people who walk up and ask for a spot. To get a spot in a shelter, call JOIN at 503-232-2031.

This article was originally published by the Oregonian/OregonLive, one of more than a dozen news organizations throughout the state sharing their coverage of the novel coronavirus outbreak to help inform Oregonians about this evolving health issue.

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