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Outdoor Emergency Shelters: Lessons Learned

Blog Post
Homelessness and Urban Camping Impact Reduction Program staff worked with the Emergency Coordination Center to set up three outdoor emergency shelters during the pandemic - and learned many lessons along the way.
Published

It was March 2020. News of the coronavirus pandemic was beginning to hit home. There were many questions about what kinds of services we’d be able to provide, but we knew this was an opportunity to do something the City hadn’t done before: create emergency outdoor shelters for people experiencing homelessness to allow them to safely shelter in place while also complying with public health guidance and physical distancing requirements. With the help of the City’s Emergency Coordination Center, we began immediately. We analyzed viable property options and started to develop an outdoor shelter operating guide. Homelessness and Urban Camping Impact Reduction Program staff had previously assessed City property to see whether a tax lot could be used to host an alternative shelter. We had assisted with the development of other villages and even led a workgroup tasked with identifying ways to streamline shelter development within the City’s zoning code - but this project was something altogether new, and the need was urgent.

Outdoor shelters are not a new concept. Several local jurisdictions have them. Portland even has a few already: Dignity Village, Right 2 Dream Too, Hazelnut Grove, Kenton Women’s Village, and now St. John’s Village. However, there were no universal processes or procedures established for creating outdoor shelters. Despite this obstacle, we were able to mobilize quickly, build upon existing frameworks, partner with non-profit and community organizations and create three new outdoor emergency shelters. Two of the three spaces intentionally serve groups that are underrepresented within our shelter system. One of the sites was designed to specifically cater to the LGBTQIA+ community and another for Black, Indigenous and People of Color, or BIPOC. The LGBTQIA+ location is referred to as Queer Affinity. The third site in Old Town is referenced as Mixed or Old Town. Collectively, the community named all three shelters Creating Conscious Communities with People Outside, or C3PO for short.

We quickly learned that the success of an outdoor shelter is highly dependent on the property. A project of this magnitude would normally take a year or longer to identify locations and negotiate contracts, but we didn’t have that kind of time. We had a draft proposal in a matter of days and identified construction-ready sites in a matter of weeks. This was a sprint and we made it work. Here are some of the things that we learned should be considered when identifying locations that could be suitable to host an outdoor shelter:

  • Size of the property (approx. 30,000 sq ft is needed to accommodate physical distancing and village common areas)
  • Geography (flat surface - pavement or gravel is preferable to grass)
  • Shade to accommodate hot weather
  • Utilities access (water, electricity) 
  • Access to public transportation 
  • Environmental risks/hazards 
  • Proximity to/access to social services 
  • Accessibility (ramps, cut curbs, etc.)
  • Ownership and cost of acquisition
  • Duration of availability (ideally, the property should be available for at least two years). 

Admittedly, the first few weeks of C3PO’s development initially felt chaotic, but we learned a lot. We learned about safety, sanitation, programmatic organization, hiring onsite staff, resource systems, food service and contract negotiations - with both service providers and the property owners. It was a lot to absorb in a short period of time. However, seeing everyone working together with a sense of urgency to create a safe space for people to shelter in place was inspiring. We didn’t know how long the pandemic would last; we just knew we had to work fast to shelter as many people as possible.

ADA accessibility was particularly challenging as two of the three sites were not fully paved and some people required accommodations. Eventually we were able to build platforms to assist people with mobility devices. These were just some of the initial hurdles we had to overcome to successfully set up the outdoor shelters.

The sites began with very basic amenities (tents, sleeping bags, and platforms), but over time we have improved upon the infrastructure. We quickly learned that it can be difficult to cope with the summer heat without shade and consistent access to cold water and ice. Autumn brought the Portland rains and suddenly belongings were drenched. Then windstorms swept away even some of the best-secured tents. Winter posed a whole new set of considerations as we needed safe heating options that still met building and fire safety requirements. Thankfully, we were able to secure funding to procure Pallet Shelters (like Tiny Homes) that provided warmth and safety from the outdoor elements, and protected people’s personal belongings.

In addition to weather factors, site security was incredibly important. Two of the sites became direct targets for extreme right-wing hate groups who threatened shelter residents, which was both demeaning and detrimental to residents' safety. The City received several demands from these groups to shut down the shelters, and we had to work with public safety bureaus to ensure the safety and security of villagers.

As the year progressed, the Impact Reduction team’s role eventually narrowed. We coordinated meal services and worked with C3PO and our Emergency Coordination Center to procure personal protective equipment and cleaning supplies for C3PO staff and operations. The meal program provided three meals a day, seven days a week to all shelter guests and relied entirely on non-profit and community organizations to provide all food needed for all three shelters.

Developing these spaces gave us the opportunity to strengthen relationships with community-based organizations.There are no words to describe how grateful we are to Feed The Mass, Blanchet House, Snack Bloc, Free Lunch Collective, Free Hot Soup, Because People Matter, Portland Rescue Mission, and the many other organizations and individuals who stepped up to provide assistance under extraordinary circumstances. We are also immensely grateful to the Portland community, who were quick to show their support. Many thanks to Old Town and CEIC for receiving these new types of alternative shelter. And many thanks to Prosper Portland for being so gracious and willing to host these shelters on their property. And special thanks to JOIN and Right to Dream Too (R2DToo) for their operations assistance and fiscal sponsorship.

We had to set up temporary emergency shelters due to the pandemic, but it has allowed us to start developing a formal framework for creating and operating permanent outdoor shelters. This framework is getting finalized in conjunction with the formal passage of the City’s Shelter to Housing Continuum Project (S2HC) and through the work of the City/County Joint Office of Homeless Services (JOHS). JOHS recently released a Request for Programmatic Qualifications for alternative shelters. This request, along with the S2HC changes, could be the first step towards formalizing a more robust alternative shelter program in the city.

Our team is incredibly proud of what we accomplished during the COVID-19 pandemic. We created three new outdoor shelters that serve approximately 110 individuals at any given time. We placed roughly 135 hygiene units in strategic locations throughout the city, and our technology services team built a live map so people can access their locations 24/7. We coordinated food service that provided 3,150 nutritious meals to 110 people each week. And throughout the pandemic we continued to dispatch work crews to reported locations throughout the community to remove record amounts of garbage, debris and bio-hazardous materials.

Our program has grown and evolved through community feedback since we began in 2015, and in addition to trash collection we now have an outreach team to engage with those experiencing homelessness to provide resources and referrals. We also recently created two employment programs for people who are unhoused or who are experiencing housing insecurity. And we’re looking forward to expanding our hygiene access program. We’re working hard, especially given all the challenges of the pandemic, but we continue to track an average of 1200 reports each week, conduct approximately 250 campsite assessments each month and pick up trash throughout the city seven days a week. We often hear it’s not enough, but know that we will continue this work to the best of our ability to meet the needs of our community. 

Contact

Homelessness and Urban Camping Impact Reduction Program