With the upcoming winter predicted to be rainier than average, the city’s homeless population, with the help of outreach programs, is frantically gathering supplies to prepare for a wet, cold, and dangerous several months.
In the most recent Point-In-Time count conducted by the city, it was found that nearly 4,200 people in Multnomah County were without permanent housing. The Point-In-Time count is a biannual count in an area of people living unsheltered, in emergency shelters, or in transitional housing on a single night and is required by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development. The last count was taken in February 2017, and it saw an almost 10% increase in total population of homeless individuals since the 2015 count. The numbers have risen even higher since then.
As the cost of living in Portland increases rapidly, the homeless communities are stuck in a loop of houselessness with seemingly no way out. This is particularly dangerous knowing the severe weather that this winter will bring. With the winter comes the fear of starvation and hypothermia for those in the area who are left unsheltered each night. Kristle Delihanty, an outreach worker in Southeast Portland, provides mobile rescue and assesses homeless camp needs, regularly checking in on camps to offer emergency gear and emotional support.
Delihanty knows the urgency of the situation and is doing what she can to help those communities prepare for the expected challenges as the year wraps up. “Right now, we are an army of ants, running for [gear] to keep our houseless friends safe over the next few months,” says Delihanty. “More money is going into what we call sweeps, where we see so many resources poured into [the Oregon Department of Transportation] and the Portland Bureau of Transportation. ODOT is sweeping [homeless communities] off of county land and onto city land, [and] the city is coming out there and taking their things. It’s just an endless cycle of money being thrown into a pit.” She does not believe that Multnomah County and the City of Portland are doing enough to satisfy the most urgent need of these communities: a safe form of shelter to hunker down in at nights, so they don’t have to brave the winter cold, rain, and possible snow this season will bring.
There is a big push from those close to the homeless communities to open up the Wapato Jail and turn it into a temporary shelter for those in need. Wapato is a minimum-security detention center in North Portland that was constructed in 2003, but has never been used to house inmates and currently sits unoccupied and unused. Homeless rights advocates like Delihanty are urging the city to open Wapato this winter in order to give those living in the city without shelter a place to stay. However, they have acknowledged some trade-offs, the main one being that preparing Wapato and opening it for the winter would take funds away from possible long-term housing solutions down the line. Currently, it is undecided whether or not opening Wapato as a temporary solution would be worth the money it would cost.
In terms of what Portland citizens can do to help out this winter, Delihanty says that physical donations are quite appreciated: “Tents, tarps, sleeping bags, anything that people can use to roll up in and keep shelter in over the winter time.” However, the most important thing Delihanty asks for is that the public simply show some compassion to the people who are facing homelessness. “I’d say [compassion] is our biggest thorn. We literally battle the community trying to help these people,” she says.
This winter will bring great hardships to those who are currently living in our city without permanent housing. If Wapato Jail is opened as a shelter this year, it could create as many as 2,000 beds for unsheltered people to sleep in. However, this would only be a temporary solution to our city’s ever growing homeless crisis.