Unhoused Portlanders Struggle Amid Icy Conditions After Shelters Close




After Multnomah County closed all its overnight warming shelters Wednesday, Michael Harper trudged to homelessness nonprofit Street Roots in Old Town to get a referral to a nearby year-round shelter.

But when he arrived at the Union Gospel Mission, he was told the shelter was full.

“So I slept right out in front of the church on the sidewalk,” Harper, 49, said, adding that a handful of others did the same. “I’ll likely be sleeping on the sidewalk again tonight.”

Harper was one of an estimated 1,200 people forced to leave a dozen warming shelters Wednesday morning after county officials declared weather conditions no longer warranted emergency sites.

Unhoused Portlanders, advocates and nonprofit leaders across the region expressed grave worry and frustration over the county’s decision to cut off access to safe spaces while wet, windy and icy conditions persisted.

Just walking from the warming centers was treacherous, ejected shelter residents said, and it was hard to locate a place to stay dry overnight.

Indeed, late Wednesday at about 10:30 p.m. the county announced all of its own offices and libraries would be closed for safety reasons “due to ice.”

County officials relied on numerous weather forecasts that indicated as recently as Wednesday morning that temperatures would rise mid-Wednesday and ice would thaw – assertions that turned out to be wrong. But at the time they closed the shelters between 10 a.m. and noon, the temperature was 31 and slick ice remained on many streets.

“Severe weather shelters save lives during the very coldest and hardest nights of the year,” Multnomah County Chair Jessica Vega Pederson said in statement or to The Oregonian/OregonLive Thursday afternoon. “Multnomah County uses the best information we have to make decisions about severe weather shelter openings and closings, and preparations for both are multi-day endeavors.”

Vega Pederson said the county sheltered as many as 1,300 people a night for five days, which she said is proof the county is committed “to improving our processes, partnerships and performance.” The previous high, in December 2022, was just shy of 1,000 individuals.

“We consult weather and emergency management experts ahead of and during events,” Vega Pederson said. “No decision is made lightly … weather is unpredictable and sometimes weather events with very low probability, like yesterday’s delayed thaw take place.”

Another round of freezing rain is expected in the metro area as early as mid-afternoon Thursday, according to the National Weather Service’s Portland office.

Overnight temperatures are expected to linger around 30 degrees Thursday into Friday. Forecasters don’t expect ice to melt or temperatures to rise above freezing until around 10 a.m. Friday.

Nevertheless, officials in Multnomah and Washington counties have indicated they do not plan to reopen warming shelters. Clackamas County on Wednesday evening kept open a warming shelter it runs in cooperation with Clackamas Community College.

By policy, Multnomah County opens winter shelters when temperatures are forecast to dip to 25 degrees or below, if snow accumulation is forecast to reach an inch or more or if an inch or more of rain is forecast to fall overnight with temperatures are at or below 32 degrees. The thresholds must persist for four hours or occur between 8 p.m. and 7 a.m. to trigger shelter openings, according to the county. The county’s chief operating officer may also consider any other conditions that could increase the risk to the community.

National weather service forecasts indicate rain is unlikely to continue into overnight hours and temperatures will remain below freezing but above 25 degrees – conditions that would not trigger the county’s current thresholds.

Instead of shelter, the county has offered three spots where people can pick up cold weather gear from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Thursday. The sites are at Cultivate Initiatives, 14625 SE Stark St., Bud Clark Commons, 650 NW Irving St., and Market Street Shelter, 120 SE Market St.

Clackamas County opted to open a warming shelter at The Father’s Heart in Oregon City from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Thursday and will reopen it at 6 p.m. for overnight shelter. Scott Anderson, county spokesperson, said they open overnight warming centers if weather is predicted to be 33 degrees or lower, including windchill factors, or if other factors make it dangerous to sleep outside.

Advocates believe Multnomah County should have a similar, more flexible guideline that considers dangerous conditions outside of their typical rules.

“Making decisions to kick everybody out into the ice based off an arbitrary temperature makes no sense,” said Liz Starke, development director for Rose Haven, a women’s day shelter in Portland. “It is clearly still an emergency situation out there and people simply have no place to go.”

Blanchet House peer support specialist Duke Reiss said one of their frequent guests died inside their tent from hypothermia over the weekend, though that individual is not included in Multnomah County’s count of hypothermia-related deaths. Multnomah County officials said the hypothermia-related death count would be updated at 3:30 p.m. Thursday, if any additional individuals died.

“She was found dead in her tent,” Reiss said. Her partner and others “were told it was a suspected hypothermia death.”

The woman and her partner were referred to Bybee Lakes Hope Center before the winter storm hit Portland. But the woman’s partner was turned away because he had a warrant for a non-violent criminal charge, Reiss said. She chose not to stay there if he couldn’t too.

“Her partner begged her to stay at Bybee Lakes without him, but she was nervous to stay on her own,” Reiss said. “We got them on waitlists for other shelters, but many of the shelters are at capacity right now … More low-barrier shelters could have prevented this death.”

Reiss said the winter shelters were particularly helpful to reach a broader demographic of unhoused Portlanders than typically access shelter because the sites are truly low-barrier. All who show up are welcomed.

Starke, at Rose Haven, said her staff was struggling to find shelter for people Thursday mornings as every nonprofit they called was at capacity.

“We need these types of low barrier shelters all year round,” Starke said. “But at the very least, if we know this weather is coming, the shelters should open before the crisis begins and stay open until we are safely past the crisis. People who are most vulnerable are really struggling, and it is still an emergency situation out there.”

Starke said hypothermia is not the only risk. She said there is an increased danger of people being hurt from tent fires or smoke inhalation as they try to keep their tents warm. By Thursday morning, many brand new orange tents could be seen in the Old Town neighborhood. Campers said they received the tents when they exited the warming centers Wednesday.

Raymond, who asked not to share his last name because he doesn’t want people to know he is houseless, stayed at the Market Street Shelter in Southeast Portland until it closed at 10 a.m. Wednesday. While he appreciated the food, sleeping bag, tarp and tent that he received before leaving, he believes the shelter should have remained open at least one more night.

“I was thinking, no way this is what they’re going to do,” Raymond, 66, said. “It was like being on the Lloyd Center ice rink. I was just thinking people were going to walk out on that ice and break their neck. I fell once and I just kept thinking, what were these people doing, pushing everyone out while it’s still all ice. The shelters did good for people, but they should have given us an extra day.”

A man standing next to Raymond waiting in line for lunch service at Blanchet House said he slipped on ice three times already. And many people could be seen walking down streets instead of sidewalks to avoid ice Wednesday night and into Thursday evening, though many of those individuals were hard for drivers to spot in the darkness.

Raymond is hoping to snag a spot at another shelter this week, but until then, he plans to ride TriMet buses throughout the city to stay warm.

Nicole Hayden reports on homelessness for The Oregonian/OregonLive. She can be reached at nhayden@oregonian.com. Editor Brad Schmidt contributed to this report.