Six Month Framework to Reduce Harm for People Living Outside


Multnomah County Commissioner Sharon Meieran

Introduction: One of the most pressing issues facing Multnomah County is the public health, safety and humanitarian crisis of people living unsheltered on our streets. We need to address this crisis effectively and urgently, in a way that acknowledges that people will tragically continue to live outside as we continue our work to end homelessness over the long term. Multnomah County’s Local Implementation Plan for the Metro Supportive Housing Services measure specifically identifies an urgent need for additional hygiene, street safety, outreach, and other alternative shelter options to better meet the needs of people living unsheltered. In fact, the LIP calls out alternative shelter as one of the “most pressing needs as identified through data and by stakeholders.” Toward that end, I propose that over six months we take dedicated actions toward creating a broad, coordinated network of alternative shelter options and basic hygiene services that will support and reduce harm for people living outside.


Months 1

  • Hire dedicated 2 FTE JOHS staff to oversee Alternative Shelter strategy: The Joint Office of Homeless Services (JOHS) will hire 2 FTE to oversee and manage a portfolio of alternative shelter work, including implementing a plan to establish an expanded, coordinated network of alternative shelter sites across Multnomah County. This staff capacity would provide support for existing alternative shelter programs; provide support for new proposed programs through a recently issued JOHS Alternative Shelter Request for Programmatic Qualifications (RFPQ); and ensure coordination with City of Portland on approved staffing in the Office of Management and Finance (OMF) and proposals to spend up to $20 million in City American Rescue Plan (ARP) funds for sanctioned safe sleep sites.

Months 2-3

  • Identify available land and facilities: The first crucial step will be to identify locations on which alternative shelters can be sited. This process should be done urgently, and can be done more efficiently than in the past as a result of changes in City zoning laws; increased desire of neighborhoods and coalitions to adopt sites; and City’s hiring of staff dedicated to identifying facilities and parcels of land that can be used as alternative shelter sites. Potential options for siting include, but are not limited to: parking lots; city blocks; and smaller outdoor areas that could accommodate 8-10 units. The City and County should also consider pursuing privately-owned sites, and actively engage with the private sector to borrow, lease or purchase land for this use, and offer property tax abatement and/or other incentives to assist in this effort.

  • Identify inclusion criteria for sites: Considerations will need to include accessibility to transportation and services, proximity to other structures, geographical distribution, and coordination with other sites. These should be mapped out. 

  • Estimate rough site costs: All sites would need to include the following basic elements: 

    • Sleep structures: There are a number of versatile structures that can serve as alternative shelter units, including pallets, severe weather insulated tents, tiny homes, and more.

    •  Power and lighting

    • Generators and radiant heat

    • Shower and laundry services

    • Toilets and handwashing/hygiene stations 

    • Garbage collection/recycling/sharps removal 

    • Support staff for the site. This would vary according to the degree of services needed/desired.

  • Engage with unhoused residents, neighborhood associations, local businesses, etc.: Connect with neighborhood residents (housed and unhoused) and other community members about potential site development. Provide information and answer questions. Receive and incorporate feedback.

Months 2-4

  • Develop models for site support: Some sites might need more structured/full time staff, others might just need people who check in over the course of a week to ensure there are no specific needs or safety issues. The people who best understand the needs of people living unsheltered are those who have lived the experience themselves, and so peers should be employed whenever possible.

    • Determine additional services that night be needed: Site types will vary, as will service needs. Services additional to baseline operations can include behavioral and physical health services, peer support, employment and housing assistance, skills development, and others. 

  • Design sites - draft

  • Set up volunteer sign-up and coordination process

  • Develop data coordination and collection processes: There are a number of models available to collect information in order to best coordinate services and meet people’s needs. No one will be required to give information. 

    • This can be coordinated with Community Solutions “Built For Zero,” and can start the “By-Name-Count” process.

Months 4-5

  • Finalize site design

  • Procure supplies

  • Procure services

  • Train service providers

  • Reach out to potential residents: Share information about sites directly with unsheltered residents through trusted community partners. Answer questions and spend time engaging about the opportunities. 

    • Adapt plans as needed based on feedback from potential residents.

  • Set up sites: A network of volunteers will set up sites, coordinated and overseen by paid or volunteer staff. 

Month 6

  • Facilitate and support move-in: Provide effective assistance to people in moving themselves, their belongings, their pets, etc. to places where they can sleep without fear of being uprooted, and where they have access to a safe and healthy place to live with dignity until they can access transitional or permanent housing.

Goal: A coordinated network of sites effectively distributed throughout Multnomah County that provide safe, stable space for people to stay until they are able to obtain permanent housing or other housing opportunity. This alternative shelter network should be integrated into and closely coordinated with existing shelter, outreach and housing placement activities of the JOHS the City of Portland, and Metro.

Funding and staffing requirements

Proposed JOHS staffing cost - $300,000 for 2 FTE in JOHS to coordinate and implement this plan, including but not limited to: dedicated program management; communications, outreach and engagement; contract oversight; volunteer management; data tracking and analysis; and other functions. These positions may be shared across other portfolios of work in the JOHS, but there should be a minimum of 1.0 FTE dedicated to oversight and management of this work. 

Proposed implementation cost - $5 million to invest in sites and services, including first 6 months of operations. The $5 million estimate is based on a model having a total of 8 safe sleep sites (10 units each), 4 safe parking sites (20 vehicles each), and 8 larger structured sites (30 units each), distributed equally throughout the City of Portland. Specific service and support costs will vary according to the needs of each site, and total cost will depend on the mix of site types. 

Proposed funding source(s) - this work should be funded initially through American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) resources. After one year of implementation, the County should reassess the need for these services to inform continued investment either through future ARPA allocation and/or through anticipated Metro Supportive Housing Services Program funding and/or through baseline JOHS funding streams.

Conclusion: A short-term action-oriented approach is essential to address the urgent public health and safety crisis of people living unsheltered on our streets. This approach not only provides a crisis response, but as it improves people’s health, safety and dignity can then serve as a basis for understanding and ultimately meeting their longer term housing and service needs. 

This proposed framework should be considered in the context of (1) expanding the Joint Office of Homeless Services, including adding a team dedicated specifically to addressing alternative approaches to unsheltered homelessness; (2) implementing the Local Implementation Plan of the Metro Supportive Housing Services Measure; (3) ensuring community proposals around alternative shelters through the current RFPQ process are incorporated into and coordinated with the plan; and (4) the following Guiding Principles:

Guiding Principles:

EquityBe guided by, include, and appropriately compensate people with lived experience throughout the process, with intentional focus on people who have been historically marginalized, excluded and disproportionately impacted by houselessness, including Black, Indigenous and other People of Color, those who are LGBTQ+, people with a history of behavioral health issues and/or physical disability, elders, and others.

Harm reduction - Be trauma-informed; focus on improvements in health and safety; and promote individual dignity. 

Facilitation and support - Ensure people have dedicated outreach in moving themselves, their belongings and their pets in a supportive and trauma-informed way.

Choice and self-determination - Provide an array of options rather than one size fits all - people who are houseless are not a monolithic group, and individuals have different needs at different times.

Community - Many encampments have established communities. Community is often as essential to people as shelter. Maintain existing communities and facilitate the creation of community whenever possible.

Coordination and systems approach - Each site can reduce harm and improve the health, safety and dignity of individuals. But the real impact is in collective systems transformation and the ability to meaningfully identify and serve people and facilitate transition to supportive housing and other permanent housing. This can only occur through a coordinated and intentional network.   

Urgency - People living outside are subject to potential violence, lack of sanitary and healthy conditions, and risk of harm every day. The conditions truly constitute a humanitarian crisis, and should be treated as such.

****Please note that this document - though informed by listening sessions, dedicated forums, and conversations with many individuals throughout the community, including people with lived experience of being houseless, advocates, and other community members -  is only a draft. I welcome your questions, suggestions, critique, and feedback. You can reach me at district1@multco.us****