Already on a given night, the Joint Office supports more shelter capacity than it did before the pandemic, with more than 1,600 beds, sleeping pods and motel rooms – up from 1,350 year-round beds before the pandemic. Because rooms and sleeping pods can serve more than one person, the number of people served is even higher.
That’s because the Joint Office and its partners, including the city of Portland, spread shelter throughout the community to avoid losing any capacity – and to keep people inside while also ensuring social distancing.
Fifteen new shelters have opened since COVID arrived, including motels, villages and hybrid-style shelters. Those new shelters more than made up for any emergency capacity limits in the Joint Office’s adult congregate shelters.
This month, to continue growing the record number of beds available, the Joint Office has been working with shelter providers around a goal to gradually lift all capacity limits in congregate shelters. That would add 450 more beds.
But that goal also recognizes the risks of an ongoing pandemic. In January alone, during the peak of the highly transmissible Omicron wave, shelters in Multnomah County saw 13 outbreaks, up from four a month on average before.
That’s why, even though Oregon’s mask mandate has been lifted, Public Health is also recommending that masks continue to be used in all shelters for the time being.
More congregate beds, including a new shelter site
Providers are actively working to restore capacity, continuing planning and work that was delayed last fall by the arrival of Omicron.
Transition Projects, the provider operating the largest number of adult congregate shelters in Multnomah County, has begun adding beds back, with a plan to restore capacity from 50 percent to 75 percent by the end of the month.
In addition, a new 125-bed congregate shelter serving adult women will open this spring at 120 S.E. Market St. That site, funded by the City and County’s Business Income Tax surplus, was pressed into early emergency use during this winter’s two severe weather events.
Managing ongoing health risks
Shelter providers have worked closely with local public health throughout the pandemic to minimize the risk of severe COVID-19 in shelter settings, including frequent and ongoing consultation with the outbreak team, coordination of testing strategies, and collaboration with the health officer team.
The County opened voluntary isolation programs to help unhoused people who tested positive for or experienced high-risk exposure to COVID-19 isolate or quarantine and receive wraparound services until they recovered. The County also prioritized vaccinating shelter staff and guests, holding at least 40 vaccine clinics for sheltered and unsheltered individuals, including at severe weather shelters and individual sites designed to be easily accessible.
Though the pandemic is entering a new phase, it is not yet over.
Multnomah County still requires masking in the shelter it operates, and recommends it in shelters overall. The risk of COVID-19 being spread in shelters is ongoing – due to the very nature of viral transmission – one of the reasons the Joint Office moved to open nine motel shelter programs for people at high-risk of COVID-19. That includes a 137-room shelter in Northeast Portland that opened in February, also thanks to funding from the City and County’s business income tax surplus.