By CORY ELIA
When the COVID-19 pandemic prompted Oregon Governor Kate Brown to issue a stay home order, many of the state’s unsheltered houseless population were left wondering where they would be able to go. Many of the services they rely on daily began issuing social distancing requirements or shutting down entirely due to the pandemic.
In response to the crisis, communities and organizations have mobilized to address the issue of sheltering the extremely vulnerable houseless population during this crisis.
When COVID-19 hit, Clackamas County put out an urgent request to get as many at-risk houseless individuals in motel rooms as possible. Do Good Multnomah was one of the organizations that answered that request. Over the last year prior to the crisis, they had been working with multiple groups and organizations to help the houseless community in different ways.
One of their most recent partnerships was with Clackamas Service Center– which is also helping the houseless community during this crisis– to staff and run their warming shelter over the winter. Through their partnership with CSC they were able to get a head start on the program due to pre-existing relationships with the service center’s clients.
Jeremiah Kelton, an emergency outreach specialist, and Stephanie Billmyre, a social worker, are running the organization’s motel program. “The aim is to get as many of the at-risk and elderly homeless off the streets as fast as possible” states Kelton.
So far, they have placed 72 individuals in rooms spread out over six different motels in the Portland area. The motels are not named out of respect for their client’s privacy.
The organization started their work around March 25th, according to Kelton. They plan on adding more people to the program, ultimately sheltering around 120 people. The program is being funded by a $500,000 grant from Clackamas County.
Kelton cites the cramped spaces of shelters as one of the main reasons the organization decided to use motel rooms to help people socially distance and isolate themselves. “Our main criteria are that a person be 60 years of age or have pre-existing, underlying health issues”, Kelton states about the requirements to get into the program.
Enzel Chillingworth is one of the clients of CSC that was placed in a motel room so she could properly isolate from others. “This group [Do Good] is amazing and I love both Stephanie and Jeremiah for the work they are doing!” Enzel stated.
Prior to this, Chillingworth had been living on the edge of houselessness in a derelict 1987 Winnebago RV parked in the driveway of a friend’s house not far from Clackamas Service Center. According to Chillingworth, she ended up in this living situation abruptly in order to get out of a violently abusive relationship a couple year prior. Her rent was $300, but she said that the tiny space was never enough for her and her two small dogs.
I’ve known Enzel for two years; we met during the time I volunteered at CSC. I’ve also been working along side the Village Coalition to raise money to buy a tiny home for her that would be placed on private property.
Enzel described her daily routine before the pandemic as: waking up in the morning, feeding her dogs and some stray cats, getting ready for the day, and then heading out for either Clackamas Service Center or to whatever job she was working that day.
“When everything started to shut down, I was worried about work, of course, but mostly about the completely unsheltered homeless living along the bike trail and on the streets around the city,” she said. “I figured this would leave them with nowhere to turn or go when in need.”
The types of work she does varies, but during spring and summer each year, Enzel spends her time working for the carnival company Funtastic Games during summer gatherings like Cinco De Mayo or Rose Festival. The rest of the year she works odd jobs.
With Rose Festival and many other summer festivities in Portland cancelled due to the public health concerns, Chillingworth’s prospects of summer work vanished quickly as the situation evolved rapidly to address the concerns of spreading the illness.
“I enjoy working the carnivals during the summer because of all the smiling kids’ faces”. At the end of fall 2019, Chillingworth was diagnosed with serious medical issues and has been receiving medical attention.
Even while receiving medical attention, Chillingworth was still going to the center to get food boxes and services while also doing what she could to help the other houseless individuals that frequent the center. “The people at Clackamas Service Center are amazing as well because they are still open and offering some form of help when most everything else is closed.”
According to Billmyre, while they have these individuals safely sheltered in their rooms Do Good is also “case managing to get resources like medical and housing for them as well”. Lacking a clear projection of when the crisis might subside, Billmyre foresees the program changing in the future.
According to her, with proper funding the organization might be using the motels as transitional housing while they work to get individuals into houses and apartments of their own.
There are other examples of this model being implemented around the city as well. Jupiter Hotel, located on SE 8th Avenue and Burnside Street, has partnered with Multnomah County’s Joint Office of Homeless Services to shelter some of the houseless during this crisis too.
Furthermore, three sanctioned tent encampments have been approved by the City and a large coalition of nonprofits and outreach groups– including Street Roots– are working diligently to get campers to the locations.
The pandemic has shown that quick actions are needed in order to protect the health of the at-risk and highly vulnerable houseless population of Portland, but also the nation at large.
To conclude, Chillingworth shared that “I was freaking out when all this began but thanks to the kindness and hard work of Stephanie and Jeremiah, I have been able to gather my thoughts on the situation and calm down some. I wish more organizations would follow their example!”
Editor’s note: Portions of this story first appeared in Street Roots.
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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