City homeless agencies weather historic storm
Unprecedented demand for food and shelter mostly met
By PETER KORN
It could have been so much worse.
With Portland residents complaining about buses and trains that didn't run frequently enough, and streets that weren't plowed and sanded, city officials and nonprofit agencies that help the homeless say collectively they came through two weeks of winter storms with a new sense of just how much they can accomplish in an emergency.
Mostly, they say, Portland relief agencies and citizens responded heroically to emergency conditions. From emergency shelters opening on little more than a few hours notice - and staying open as long as two weeks - to mid-storm citizen drop-offs of blankets and jackets, help for the homeless was unprecedented.
And all that despite the fact that a week before the first storm hit, the city did not have an emergency shelter plan in place.
"We never had a two-week period where we had this much need," says city Commissioner Nick Fish, who took over the city's Bureau of Housing and Community Development when he became Commissioner in June 2008.
On many winter nights, more than 500 homeless people are turned away from Portland's overflowing shelters. Yet during the storms, beds were found for all who wanted them, and only one Portland resident was believed to have died as a direct result of being outside during the storms - a homeless man found dead of exposure at Lone Fir Cemetery in Southeast Portland.
"The ultimate test of how successful we were was how successfully we saved lives. We saved dozens of lives through the storms. I have never been prouder of a community," Fish says.
A number of administrators at nonprofits echoed Fish.
"It wasn't perfect, but it was certainly more than we've been able to do in the past," says Marc Jolin, executive director of JOIN, a Southeast Portland nonprofit that helps the homeless. Jolin says that as far as he can tell, every homeless person who wanted to get inside had a place to go.
Still, not everybody believes the city did all it could to help the homelessness.
James Sloan, Portland metro coordinator for the Salvation Army, says in the early days of the storm, especially, there was more chaos than coordination. And Sloan says his agency knew that would be the case.
"The city made a valiant effort," Sloan says. "But the problem with the city is, they address things when a crisis is upon us. We asked them to look at this a number of months ago. It's no surprise that it gets cold in the middle of December. There was really nothing addressing this until there was a crisis, and that was very sad," Sloan says.
Sloan says what was lacking, especially in the first few days, was a central coordinating authority so that when one shelter filled up, the homeless could easily be diverted to another one that had open beds. As the storm became worse and shelters allowed the homeless to say inside throughout the day and night, food supplies were often inadequate, he says.
"I got the feeling we were kind of making up the plan as we went along," says Vernon Wease, program manager for the Harbor Light homeless shelter in Old Town. "We are all good agencies, and we did out jobs, but it would have been nicer if there was some sort of coordination."
Wease says his shelter had 90 residents day and night, but for the first day and a half, no meals to serve. And some homeless who were shut out of Harbor Light did not know where to go, Wease says.
Asked to respond to the criticisms, Fish said, "We are in conversation with the Salvation Army, and we intend to address their concerns."
Harbor Light's issues didn't happen at the Portland Rescue Mission, also in Old Town. According to J.R. Baker, outreach director for the Mission, when their beds filled up they were able to call telephone numbers provided by the city and shuttles came to take the extras to another shelter.
Wease says that by the third day of the storm, the city's ability to coordinate events improved. And that, Fish says, is greatly because when he took office, he discovered the city did not have an emergency housing plan for winter storms. There was no system for tracking the capacity of shelters and no plan for transporting homeless from one shelter to another.
As the storm approached, Fish says, the city's Bureau of Housing and Community Development cobbled a plan together, and coordination evolved from there.
"Every day we got smarter about how to deal with it," Fish says.
Even with the last-minute preparations, when the first storm hit Dec. 14, the different nonprofit agencies capable of sheltering and feeding the homeless were not connected to a communication system, according to Fish.
Eventually, the city borrowed communications equipment from the fire department and set up a system using fire department vans and vehicles from the water bureau to shuttle the homelessness to shelters with open beds.
As the storms continued, Fish says, coordination improved. Firefighters went on runs to local stores and delivered food to the shelters. Ambulance crews were sent to shelters to check out health concerns. Police visited warming centers to exert a calming influence on occupants growing increasingly edgy while confined in the shelters around the clock, day after day.
Fish says the system eventually put in place worked.
"And we'll be better prepared for the next big storm," he says.