Across the road, a man named Josh, framed in bright light, sat close to the glass doors of a closed business. Josh had been re-packing his bags while waiting for a friend, the stuff of survival scattered all around him. An ample awning overhead kept him dry.
Bell grabbed a tarp and a sleeping bag from a pile of supplies and walked over. She introduced herself — she’s a street outreach worker for JOIN; she just wants to say hello — and laid the gear near Josh’s feet.
“Is one tarp enough?” she asked. “Or do you need one more?”
Josh says he used to work at a hospital in southern Oregon before moving to Portland. And, yes, he’d gladly take another tarp. The weather is taking a toll. And changes in Portland, he said, with new buildings and more security in once-desolate places, are making it harder to find dry, safe places to sleep.
Bell bent down to hand him her card.
“Call us,” she told Josh. “Let us know where you’re at and we’ll do what we can. We’ll work with you until you’re ready.”
Then she shook his hand. It was chilly and damp. “Do you need some gloves, too?” He did. He smiled.
“I’m just trying to keep a positive mindset,” he told Bell.
Bell answered back before heading for the gloves: “Your positivity keeps me going.”
This hand up to hope happens every night, dozens of times, all over Multnomah County. And it happens year after year, season after season.
Bell is one of eight people on JOIN’s outreach team, supported through a contract with Multnomah County and the City of Portland’s Joint Office of Homeless Services. Another Joint Office contract this winter is adding more outreach specifically for families without shelter.
JOIN’s crews are matched by dozens of other people from other agencies — like the Sheriff’s Office or Cascadia Behavioral Health — or just volunteers heading out all on their own.
That work is particularly important in the winter, when dangerously cold and wet conditions settle over the Willamette Valley for months.
Outreach workers fan out from Forest Park to the Sandy River Delta with gear and other necessities — blankets, tarps, socks, coats, hats, gloves, food, water, bus tickets — that can keep people alive and settled, and eventually get them connected to services and housing.
This winter has been remarkably mild. But back in the car, where he was waiting for Bell, Quinn Colling, JOIN’s outreach coordinator, says what should be good news has him worried.
By late December most years, snow or temperatures below 25 degrees will have activated the Joint Office’s emergency severe weather response at least once or twice.
When that happens, warming centers open for anyone seeking a bed, and community members respond generously, donating blankets, tarps and sleeping bags. (To learn how and where to make a donation, go to 211info.org/donations.) And outreach workers, like always, work as quickly as they can to get it all out to neighbors in need.
“We’re so low,” Colling said, noting a shortage of blankets in particular. “We haven’t had severe weather yet. That’s always when people bring us stuff. It’s kind of shocking it hasn’t happened yet.”
After a couple of hours of passing out gear, Colling says, there aren’t enough blankets and sleeping bags left in the trunk to head out to some of the larger camps he and Bell know about. They’ll have to stock up and go back. If there aren’t enough basics to go around, it can cause problems. People feel left out and sometimes will argue.
Colling pulled over after spotting three men, sopping wet, walking in the shadow of Lincoln High School. He and Bell got out of the car and beckoned them to the trunk, offering hats, tarps, socks and a sleeping bag.
“Oh yeah? Are you serious?” asked one of the men, named Danny. “Thank you!”
Colling and Bell also had a camping-style backpack, the kind with a support frame and straps that cinch around the waist. But just one. The men claimed it and went back on their way in the rain. Everything was fine.
A study by economic consulting firm ECONorthwest, released this fall, put some research findings behind what outreach workers and other advocates already knew in their hearts and from experience: More than anything else, more than mental illness and drug addiction, housing costs are driving Portland’s rise in homelessness.
The study found without major new investments by Multnomah County and Portland over the past four years — doubling shelter capacity and helping thousands more people year over year leave or avoid the streets with rent assistance — the crisis would be even worse.
“When I first started,” Colling said, “I could find people places to live on Social Security” disability checks.
That’s no longer true, putting housing at risk or out of reach for roughly 18,000 people in Multnomah County who have disabilities severe enough that Supplemental Security Income, a federal benefit, is their sole income. Next year, the maximum monthly payment will climb to just $771.
In neighborhoods like Goose Hollow, Colling said, you used to find rooms to rent for $500 or less. Not any more.
“There isn’t a place anywhere like that now,” he said.
That’s not to say housing clients is impossible. Far from it. Even if it’s more difficult. Even if it takes years and hundreds of business cards.
Many people want to come inside immediately. But a few, because of mental illness or prior experiences with government and law enforcement, need time to build trust. Colling remembered getting to know a client who’d been sleeping in the same doorway for seven years. He’d check in over and over. The man was always there.
“Then one day,” Colling said, “he said he was ready to go inside.”
Another client, Roy, a veteran, had been outside for 25 years when Colling got to know him. It was the same for Roy. One day, after years of working with Colling, he was ready, too.
Colling was delighted Roy got housed, even if it meant he wouldn’t see him as often.
“It’s tough. He didn’t have a lot of people in this world who cared about him or checked up on him,” Colling said. “I had a deep connection with this guy.”
Bell and Colling have both been doing street outreach, of one kind or another, for more than 10 years.
Bell, who’s also worked at Central City Concern and Transition Projects, was recently tasked with covering a large swath of Portland’s inner west side, from the Steel Bridge to Montgomery Park to Providence Park and back through downtown to the Willamette River and its bridges.
“I couldn’t see myself doing anything else,” she said. “I’ve worked behind a desk. I wore the skirt. I’ve done that work. And every time, I would look out the window and I would see someone in need. Changing someone’s life with simple things is what lights me up.”
Colling points out all the things that have changed since he worked the same area regularly. Bright, busy neighborhoods, in Northwest Portland for instance, have replaced the empty warehouse blocks, dark doorways and loading docks that were perfect for little-seen, low-impact camping and RV parking.
One of the reasons unsheltered people seem more numerous, is because they’re more visible to the average resident, Colling and Bell say: Campers are spreading out to places, like sidewalks and out in neighborhoods, where they never needed to camp before.
“You have all of this new development that wasn’t here 10 years ago,” Colling said while driving on NW Front Avenue. “No one would notice.”
Under the Fremont Bridge, Bell checks on an older woman under some sleeping bags who’s fashioned a windbreak out of a tarp and a cyclone fence.
Bell offers a hat to the woman, who answers questions about her situation and interest in treatment and housing almost in third person. It’s as if one person is speaking for another. There was interest, but one of the personas wasn’t ready.
“She deserves to be safe, too,” Bell told the persona answering. “I’ll check up on you in about a day.”
Bell and Colling found a clutch of tents a few blocks away, all lined up under a long awning that was dry but full of light.
Some of the campers weren’t around. Some were sleeping. A long-time volunteer outreach worker from Washington, famously known on the streets as Father Dan, was tucking hot soup and socks into their tents anyway.
Bell bent down to talk to a woman who was lying in front of her tents and looking at her phone. The woman’s partner was inside but didn’t want to talk. Bell brought over a sleeping bag, tarp, socks and a hat while Colling stood nearby.
“Do you want another sleeping bag in there?” she asked the woman, who relayed the question.
“The answer is yes,” the woman said.
Bell came back with the sleeping bag. And a few other things, including her business card.
“He gets a hat, too,” Bell told the woman. “And some socks. We’ll be back. Call me.”
“I’ve been waiting for someone to come,” the woman said before Bell and Colling got back in the car to continue their rounds. “You’re a lifesaver.”