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Record heat wave could prove to be dangerous for Portland's homeless

Social service providers who work with Portland's homeless year-round will be on overdrive for days, handing out supplies and making sure people know what’s coming.

PORTLAND, Ore. — For the thousands of people who live on the streets of Portland and Multnomah County, this weekend’s heat wave could prove dangerous or even deadly. Social service providers who work with that population year-round will be on overdrive for days, handing out supplies and making sure people know what’s coming.

“Mostly, we're the ones informing people. They don't know that it's going to be 110, 111 or even 100 degrees,” said Dorian Zuniga, outreach lead with the nonprofit Transition Projects. “So when we tell them, they have a surprise on their face. They're really like ‘Wow okay. Thank you.’”

Zuniga and his team were out in Portland’s Old Town neighborhood Friday. They passed out water bottles, popsicles and cooling rags. They’ll continue this work throughout the weekend, as will teams from other nonprofits.

One man named Jim, who was camping downtown, said he hadn’t heard about the forecast. He added he wasn’t worried about himself.

“I'm more concerned about the mentally handicapped and challenged people out here on the streets that really aren't cognitively aware enough to drink the fluids,” he said.

The last Point In Time count, conducted in 2019, showed 2,037 people living unsheltered on the streets of Multnomah County. A count scheduled for January 2021 was postponed a year due to the pandemic, so no new data is available, but experts believe rates of homelessness have started to rise.

Transition Projects staff also spread the word about cooling centers opening across the city, including one at the Oregon Convention Center. County staff were setting up tables and chairs in the massive space, on the Northwest corner of the building, Friday. The OCC will be open as a cooling center 24 hours a day through Monday. It’s one of several opening throughout the area.

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The county’s chief medical officer Dr. Jennifer Vines said staff will urge people to wear masks in cooling centers, but they’re not as worried about social distancing. They’re determined not to turn anyone away.

“This is a place where anybody can come to get a break from the heat, and it's really important to give your body some rest periods because it's work. It's work for your body to keep you cool,” Vines said.