By CORY ELIA
Since the first case of coronavirus in Oregon was announced on February 28th, tensions in the Portland metropolitan have been increasing. But even in the face of this crisis, volunteers and officials are taking steps to respond to the outbreak’s health and economic impact— and special steps to protect the unhoused.
One of the most complicating issues for health officials is the lack of data on how widely the virus has already spread. The virus may have been spreading in Washington State for six weeks prior to it first being detected.
Health officials have reported that even if an individual isn’t showing symptoms they could still spread the disease. It has been advised— by the federal Center for Disease Control and other officials— for people to avoid all social gatherings, practice social distancing (about six feet), avoid groups, and practice good hygiene like regular hand washing.
If you think you are sick, stay home, call your doctor, and separate yourself from others. For more specific advice, ask your doctor and follow the link in this paragraph.
The unhoused’s vulnerability
The most vulnerable to the coronavirus are the elderly and immuno-compromised of the community. The homeless population includes a large number of individuals who fall into either or both of those categories. With their constant exposure to the elements, close quarters when receiving services, and lack of consistent sanitation options, homeless are some of the most vulnerable in the current crisis.
By the 2019 Point-In-Time count, 4,017 people are living on the streets that could be exposed to the virus. If this population is not properly supported during this time of community crisis the devastation the virus creates could be exponential increased.
There are a number of things being done to help this vulnerable part of Portland’s population. Vendors from Street Roots have formed outreach teams which are visiting camps to inform campers— who may lack a source of news— about the virus and handing out sanitary supplies. There have also been 21 mobile emergency hygiene stations placed throughout the city.
Local government response
Recommendations from Multnomah County for the shelters are to spread beds out six feet apart. While that would create a decrease in beds, winter shelters have been opened to ensure capacity was not diminished due to these new requirements and hundreds of more shelter beds are planned to be added.
Also, a moratorium on towing of what are considered to be “abandoned” vehicles— which might be occupied by homeless individuals— has been stopped as well by the order of Commissioner Chloe Eudaly, who heads the Portland Bureau of Transportation.
And just recently, County Chair Deborah Kafoury and Wheeler announced a ban on evictions, but no rent freeze or assistance at the moment. A protester took the podium around 25:00 in the video in to call for a rent freeze or strike until assistance can be given. After that a short Q&A was held for members of the media.
He also sums up much of the actions taken by local government. Watch the video by clicking below:
Meal services throughout the city have also been advised, and have been conducting sanitizing cleanings on a daily basis to control the spread of the virus. Most continue to serve as usual.
Volunteer and advocate-run meal services— like Free Hot Soup— have also stated they would continue to serve the homeless downtown with precautions in place to reduce spread of the disease.
Medical facilities like Kaiser Permanente have also been working to help during the crisis to address the situation on the street. They donated $100,000 to Central City Concern to help prevent the spread of the virus and provide CCC the ability to test for the disease in the homeless population.
Editor’s note: After publication, a representative from the Joint Office of Homeless Services got back to us, so we’ve updated the story to include their input. Additions / clarifications in the next two paragraphs are italicized.
If someone in a shelter has symptoms of a respiratory illness or is vulnerable to serious symptoms, JOHS is allowing shelter providers to place them in a motel room for quarantine purposes. There have already been some issues with this which resulted in a group of elderly homeless women being turned away by a hotel manager out of fear of the virus.
The County government issued an order on Tuesday that bans motels from refusing people in those circumstances going forward.
No one living on the streets of Portland has tested positive so far, County officials said, but testing has just started in that population.
It has also been announced that the City would reduce the number of sweeps conducted on homeless camps. This will be done by increasing the threshold of what is deemed needing to be swept. The reasoning behind this is to also reduce the risk of spreading the virus if it should be in the homeless population. There is concern being expressed to the City, however, that the sweeps need to stop entirely to fully contain the situation.
The broader community response
There has also been a formation of community members trying to help people who may not have not been prepared for a situation like this. A Facebook group called COVID-19 Portland Oregon Area Community Support has been created and has attracted over 2,600 members since its creation on March 12th.
A statement by a moderator of the group says “this group exists for solidarity and mutual aid of the working class in and around Portland”.
Join one or both groups to offer or ask for help.
The situation in Oregon has been changing quickly and several places have closed abruptly causing citizens to worry about their financial well-being. Mayor Ted Wheeler declared a state of emergency on March 12th. On the afternoon of March 16th, Governor Kate Brown ordered all bars and restaurants to close except for takeout or delivery food which will last for four weeks. This has furthered concerns of financial instability across the state.
Addressed to Brown and Wheeler, a petition has also been formed entitled Request for Relief for Rents, Mortgages, Sweeps, & for UBI by Portland City Council candidate Rachelle Dixon in hope of them address those issues.
Cory Elia is a journalist, photographer, videographer, documentary director & producer, radio personality & podcaster. His journalistic focus is on politics, protest, and poverty.
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