First, the Board unanimously agreed to extend room-block leases at three motel sites first pressed into service during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in summer 2020.
Later, the Board unanimously approved a $9.4 million construction plan to upgrade and reshape the County-owned Arbor Lodge Shelter in North Portland, a former pharmacy that has been used for most of the past year as a hybrid temporary shelter serving 58 adults and couples inside and 12 more in personal sleeping units on its parking lot.
The votes followed a lengthy hearing on a budget adjustment for the Joint Office. The Board unanimously allocated $15 million in surplus funds for eviction prevention rent assistance and $1.2 million for client assistance programs that help people more rapidly move into apartments. An additional $12.4 million was placed into short-term contingency, giving the Board more time next year to decide how best to invest those funds.
“Anybody who has watched our proceedings today who thinks this Board isn’t doing anything around homelessness, I defy you,” Commissioner Lori Stegmann said. “We voted on room-block agreements, rental assistance and now shelter. Is it enough? No. And frankly the reality is it probably will never be though.
“But it is substantial. It is important. And I’m just so proud of the work we have done in spite of the people who say we haven’t done anything.”
Motel shelters help mitigate COVID-19, provide transitions to housing
The lease extensions approved by the Board on Thursday cover three motels from the Joint Office’s much larger stable of leased or owned motel-style shelters. Each of the three sites will be able to remain open for up to two more years beyond their original leases:
- The Palms, operated by the Urban League of Portland: 46 rooms
- The Banfield Value Inn, operated by Do Good Multnomah: 53 rooms
- The Portland Value Inn-82nd, operated by Do Good Multnomah: 45 rooms
The Palms and Banfield motels are known as “high-risk” shelters serving adults, either singles or couples, who are older or medically vulnerable, and at higher risk of complications from illnesses including COVID-19 that can spread easily in traditional congregate shelter settings. The Palms is also unique among motel shelters in that it provides culturally specific services, with an emphasis on serving people who are Black and African American.
The Portland Value Inn provides isolation space for people from across the shelter system who develop symptoms of respiratory illnesses, including COVID-19 and influenza. Guests are referred by other shelter programs when they develop symptoms and return to their original programs once they recover. Without an isolation motel available, shelters where people become ill would lose capacity to accommodate distancing while also facing higher risks of outbreaks.
Motel shelters with quarters that open to the outside vs. into interior hallways, and with separate bathrooms and HVAC systems for each room, are ideally suited to provide protection.
“The original need for having spaces like this was because of COVID-19 initially, and that hasn’t gone away,” said Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson. “Look at where we are right now with COVID-19, RSV and the flu. This is a smart investment.”
Joshua Bates, interim director of the Joint Office, said motel shelters also help to provide autonomy and stability for participants, acting as a springboard to housing thanks to on-site health and case management services akin to what’s offered in other shelters.
In general, motel shelters are more expensive to operate than traditional congregate shelters, but they can be comparable to the cost of procuring, building and operating village-style shelters. Bates said motels have one other advantage, however: They can be set up and opened more quickly than any other shelter type.
“The necessary amenities for move-ins are already in place,” he said.
Arbor Lodge: Turning a temporary space into a fixture of the shelter system
The Board’s vote to move forward with renovating the Arbor Lodge Shelter in North Portland came nearly two years to the day since the Board approved using federal CARES Act funds to purchase the site in December 2020.
The County pressed the building into service almost immediately, Chair Deborah Kafoury said. In February 2021, the former Rite Aid at North Lombard Street and North Denver Avenue welcomed people inside during an extended bout of cold, snow and ice. Then it served as a community vaccine clinic, before opening again as a cooling shelter during the record-breaking heat dome of 2021 and other hot-weather events.
By the fall of 2021, Arbor Lodge was ready to open as a 24-hour temporary shelter managed by Do Good Multnomah. The nonprofit provided cots for 58 people inside the building, with a dozen personal sleeping units, plus bathrooms and showers, in the parking lot.
But the Joint Office had planned all along to renovate the site. The goal is to create a long-term 24-hour shelter, still serving adults and couples, to match other recently constructed, services-enriched sites like Southeast Portland’s Laurelwood Center shelter. In November 2021 — and in partnership with neighbors — the Board approved work to design the new space.
When Arbor Lodge reopens as early as February 2024, it will add dozens more beds and serve as many as 106 people: 88 in bunk beds inside, along with 18 upgraded, more durable sleeping units in the parking lot. Murals and a new fence also will improve the site. Beds will remain available only through reservations, with people from the surrounding area prioritized.
Bates said the renovated shelter will offer a commercial kitchen, computer stations, bike parking, laundry service, showers and restrooms accessible to people with disabilities, outdoor spaces, and an animal relief area. Alongside those features, the shelter will offer space for one-on-one case management with participants.
“We will provide an environment of safety and support to allow the guests to successfully engage in wraparound services that facilitate their transition to permanent housing,” Bates said.
Until construction starts, Arbor Lodge will remain available, as needed, for use as a warming shelter during severe cold weather.
Slightly more than half of the project, or $5 million, will be covered with state funding. Governor-Elect Tina Kotek included the money in shelter expansion legislation passed in 2021, when she was Oregon House Speaker.
The remaining $4.4 million will come from the Joint Office, drawing from shelter construction reserves. That fund grew substantially in the County’s current budget, thanks to a major infusion from the County’s General Fund in May 2022.
“I wanted to add a big thank you to our governor-elect,” Chair Kafoury said.
Commissioner Susheela Jayapal, whose district includes the shelter, thanked neighbors for their participation and patience as they offered feedback in focus groups and waited for the planned transformation of Arbor Lodge to take shape.
“I really appreciate that partnership with the Joint Office,” she said. “It’s really exciting to be at this point.”