July 23, 2020

A physical distancing motel shelter has opened at the Banfield Value Inn.
PORTLAND (July 24, 2020) — With time of the essence as cases increase in Multnomah County and Oregon, the Joint Office of Homeless Services is delivering on a promise to expand its use of motels to provide separation for people in shelters who are most likely to die or become seriously ill from COVID-19.

This month, the Joint Office has opened three new motel shelters, working with nonprofit partners to move in adults from throughout the adult shelter system who were assessed as having the highest-risk of COVID-19 complications.

That means there are now four “physical distancing motel shelters” operating in Multnomah County. The County also continues to provide “voluntary isolation” space at two additional motels, serving people who have COVID-19 symptoms or who need a place to quarantine while awaiting test results.

The ongoing shift to motel spaces explicitly follows public health guidance that calls for addressing the risks that vulnerable guests face, even in physically distanced congregate shelters. It offers an urgent option for protecting lives in the face of COVID-19’s continued threat to the community.

The transition also represents weeks of work and partnership among the Joint Office, shelter providers and Multnomah County’s Emergency Operations center.

"Providing the most vulnerable shelter residents with their own rooms is a critical strategy for keeping people as healthy as possible during the COVID-19 crisis," Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury said. "This pandemic has shown us definitively that stable shelter, where people with the highest risk of dying from this disease can maintain physical distancing and practice good hygiene, is essential to the community’s health and well-being."

As of July 23, even with priority access to testing for people experiencing homelessness, Multnomah County had yet to see a reported outbreak of COVID-19 in a shelter setting.

Out of more than 3,700 people who’d tested positive for COVID-19 in Multnomah County as of data from July 22, only 20 reported being homeless at any point in the 12 months before their test. 

New motels open; ongoing strategy includes BIPOC communities

Early in July, Transition Projects began moving high-risk adults to the Banfield Value Inn in Northeast Portland. And, last week, Do Good Multnomah began moving high-risk adults into two motels, first a Motel 6, and then a Days Inn. 

The Joint Office — which is funded by the City of Portland and Multnomah County — is leasing all of the rooms at the three motels and paying Transition Projects and Do Good Multnomah to operate and manage their respective shelter sites.

These three new sites follow the opening of a shelter for high-risk women at the Chestnut Tree Inn in June. The Joint Office is also leasing rooms there and paying Human Solutions for operations and management. 

In addition, the Joint Office’s motel strategy also recognizes COVID-19’s disproportionate impact on Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) communities.

In addition to accounting for the increased COVID-19 risk to People of Color experiencing homelessness when prioritizing overall motel shelter capacity, the

Joint Office is working with culturally specific service providers, including the Urban League of Portland, to create motel shelters and add services for people from BIPOC communities. 

BIPOC communities have long experienced disproportionate rates of homelessness in Multnomah County. And during the COVID-19 pandemic, they are also experiencing disproportionate rates of infections and hospitalizations. People of Color are expected to make up as much as 40 percent of those who stay at the new motel shelters, as those spaces fill up.

"We've taken unprecedented steps during the COVID-19 pandemic to urgently protect the vulnerable community members in our shelters and on our streets. It's why we quickly found safe spaces for people to sleep in our public buildings and in three outdoor shelters set up on public land," Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler said. "As we invest in the next phase of our response, I remain hopeful we can also leverage these motels as housing opportunities that will continue to serve us when the worst is past."

Following Public Health guidance to protect vulnerable people

The Banfield shelter will provide rooms for 53 adults of mixed gender, the Motel 6 shelter will provide rooms for 43 adults of mixed gender, and the Days Inn shelter will provide rooms for as many as 59 adults of mixed gender. Each room will offer guests their own air conditioner, bathroom and microwave.

This kind of separation follows Public Health guidelines for how best to protect people who would otherwise be in congregate living situations who are older, have underlying health conditions, or have compromised immune systems.

Motel guests will receive three meals a day. Transition Projects and Do Good Multnomah are offering services akin to what’s provided at the 24-hour, housing-focused shelters they currently operate, including laundry, case management and housing navigation.

At the Banfield, Transition Projects will use two office trailers placed in the Banfield’s parking lot. There are also plans to expand primary care and behavioral health services to the Banfield and additional physical distancing motel shelter sites.

In June, County staff working with the Joint Office and the County’s Emergency Operations Center moved vulnerable women in shelters to east Portland’s Chestnut Tree Inn. Human Solutions assumed management of the 58-person motel shelter July 1.

The goal is to continue opening motel sites for people at higher risk of infection and severe illness until the Joint Office can replace all of the bed capacity at the temporary physical distancing shelters it opened in partnership with Multnomah County Emergency Management in March.

Responding to a pandemic early

The physical distancing shelters didn’t add bed capacity to the system, but they were vital for adding physical space throughout Multnomah County and Portland’s shelters.

Space for physical distancing — along with the use of face coverings and enhanced hygiene and sanitation protocols — has allowed the Joint Office and its providers to limit the spread of COVID-19 while maintaining overall shelter capacity.

Those extension shelters, at the Oregon Convention Center and three Portland Parks & Recreation community centers, also made smart use of public buildings left empty because of the pandemic.

One of those sites, at the East Portland Community Center, closed last month at the same time the Chestnut Tree shelter opened. The Charles Jordan Community Center and Mt. Scott Community Center shelters are now the next to close.

The shelter at the Oregon Convention Center will remain open during the search for additional motels.

Throughout this transition to motels, the stability, health and safety of shelter guests will remain the Joint Office’s highest priority. No one staying in a current physical distancing shelter will lose access to shelter because of these changes.

Overall shelter capacity, so long as funding continues, will remain unchanged. The Joint Office’s commitment to physical distancing in all shelters will also remain unchanged. 

COVID-19 investments for people without shelter

Separate from these new motel shelters, Multnomah County continues to use two other motels where people experiencing homelessness, and other community members who need to isolate, can temporarily stay and access testing if they have COVID-19 symptoms. Those two motels will also host people who are awaiting test results or recovering from a confirmed COVID-19 case.

Further, three outdoor emergency shelters created in partnership with the city of Portland’s emergency coordination center also remain open.

As part of its COVID-19 response, the Joint Office has also overseen a massive push to provide food, gear and outreach services to people experiencing unsheltered homelessness. 

Since March, the Joint Office has distributed thousands of face coverings, bottles of hand sanitizer, gloves, blankets, sack lunches and water bottles, among other materials, to dozens of outreach teams and volunteer groups. 

The Joint Office is also funding work by Catholic Charities of Oregon and Blanchet House to produce a minimum of 10,000 meals a week for people in need of food at a time when many day services and meal programs have had to scale back. 

To learn more about work by the Joint Office, Multnomah County and the City of Portland to help people experiencing homelessness find shelter, safety and support during the COVID-19 emergency, go to ahomeforeveryone.net/covid-homelessness.