Covid-19 outbreaks have forced many people around the world to stay inside their homes for months on end to prevent the spread of the virus. The question no one is asking is, where do you go if you do not have a home?
As I drove the streets of downtown Portland on a warm Sunday morning, the roads were lonely but the sidewalks were overshadowed by tents, piles of trash, and an assortment of out of place objects. I
pulled up to a stop sign and rolled down the window
to snap a photo, taking time to look around for
residents of these tents, where were all the people?
Faintly, I heard lost voices mumbling from inside the
tents and piering out the mesh material window, I tried to get a closer look. The fact that the streets of Portland were lined with tents and there was not even a block bare of haphazardly built shelters or homeless people alarmed me.
Covid-19 has left many homeless people in a panic thinking their lives are at risk when governor Kate Brown ordered citizens to stay home, without acknowledging the thousands of homeless people. This order stated that social gatherings of any kind are prohibited, along with eating indoors, or any activities that are not deemed essential. Breaking this would be punishable by “up to 30 days in jail and a $1,250 fine”1.
Homeless people are already at a higher risk for contracting Covid-19. They are not receiving the same health care as people with stable jobs and permanent homes. While the majority of American’s have health care, it is still very expensive and a luxury to have. The main 1VanderHart, Dirk. “Gov. Kate Brown Issues Order Directing Oregonians To ‘Stay Home’.” Opb. OPB
reason so many people are able to afford healthcare is through their employers. The homeless community is primarily in a different situation and this makes it difficult for them to seek medical care. Many homeless people already have underlying conditions and require more intense medical care when sick. Homeless people usually have a lack of knowledge on how to get health care and also do not have the needed transportation and the identification required to receive proper health care. Along with a lack of health care, many homeless people will have underlying conditions that make them more susceptible to catching a cold or Covid-19 and give them worse symptoms. They have these underlying conditions because in the past they have not received the medical assistance they need and they do not live in hygienic situations with healthy lifestyles.
The easiest way to get Covid-19 is being within six feet of someone who has the virus, touching them, breathing their air, and being coughed on. Due to the ease of transmission, Portland shelters are facing a difficult situation. In shelters the people usually sleep close together, not to mention that practically all “shelters, day centers and free meals are nearly all designed to serve lots of people in one large space — a perfect way to transmit COVID-19”2. With new restrictions, shelters were instructed to position beds six feet apart. Shelters are also having guests only eat their food outside because masks are required indoors. Forcing beds to be six feet apart limited the capacity available. Having a health screening before entering became a new norm for many shelters.
In Oregon specifically it is easy to transmit diseases for homeless people. The city does not provide enough public sanitation services such as bathrooms, places to clean tents/sleeping bags, and showers. Many people suffering from homlessness are in search of shelter to keep them healthy and safe during the pandemic. JOIN is a homeless shelter in Portland that focuses 2Molly Harbarger. “Coronavirus Could Hit Oregon Homeless Population Particularly Hard.” Oregonlive.
on supporting “the efforts of individuals and families experiencing homelessness to transition into permanent housing.” During the pandemic JOIN understood that shelters were not an ideal sleeping situation because of the CDC guidelines which required social distancing and masks. Instead of building a shelter, they bought land and built temporary housing units.
In April of 2020, JOIN funded three outdoor homeless shelters. JOIN has been working to end the homeless crisis since the organization was founded in 1992. Building these communities was one of their many projects over the past 29 years. This specific project was beneficial to the community because it provided a safe place for people to live where they could social distance, be sheltered from the rainy weather and safe from Covid-19. The inspiration for this project was found during the spring of 2020 when the stay at home order was issued.3 Near the Willamette River, neighboring OMSI, one
of three outdoor socially distant homeless
shelters was built. While it did not provide
services outside of housing, it was beneficial
to many people that were able to reside here
during the pandemic. Tiny homes were put up
and the land was surrounded by a fence and a
tarp for privacy and safety. Hanging on the
homes were tarps and other items brought
there by the homeless community, they kept their tents and other possessions even though they were living in these spaces. While I was unable to see in through the fence, I could see the tips of the homes peaking over the fence and it brought me joy to see people had roofs over their heads instead of a rain tarp or tent.
3 Vespa, Author: Maggie. “COVID-19 Infection Count among Portland’s Homeless Remains Low.” Kgw.com.
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I have been living in Portland for my entire life and one thing about this city that is impossible to ignore is the overwhelming amount of homeless residents. The Portland homeless crisis was predominantly brought on by the lack of affordable housing, healthcare, drug abuse, and mental health or illness. While it is legal for homeless people to camp in downtown Portland, the police will only step in if there are large gatherings or large camps set up, or there is some sort of violence or drug use. Seeing people living out of tents surrounded by trash on the side of the road was hard for me to grasp. If this was such a predominant issue why was it not being taken care of? If this issue was being solved, who was helping? It isn’t shocking to anyone that has ever been to Portland that there is a homeless crisis happening and continuing to get worse. Each time I drive through downtown Portland the amount of tents seems to increase. What we are not asking is; why have we just accepted this? Besides the shelters welcoming people in and the government trying to just clean up the streets, not much is being done and that is very clear. Something about this really stuck out to me and I knew I wanted to help somehow. What I was able to do? I am just one person… How much of a
difference could I even make? The overwhelming amount
of people looking devastated on the streets was very
apparent and with this I decided to look into what these
organizations are doing and how I could get involved.
After a lot of thought, I decided to join the Youth
Outreach Board at a local women’s shelter to work with
other teens to work on ending the prevalent issue of
homelessness in Portland. I initially heard about Rose Haven from a close friend of mine. Rose
Haven is a women’s shelter in Northwest Portland and works towards breaking the cycle of homelessness by providing services to the homeless community. They work with women and people who identify as gender non-confirming to encourage behavioral and economical long term change along with helping them support their children.
Since June of 2020 at my first Rose Haven meeting, the staff has always been warm and inviting. I was thankful to be able to be a part of the efforts for change and this amazing group of people. Someone specific who really inspired me was Executive Director of Rose Haven, Katie O’Brien. The first Sunday of every month the other youth board members and I were each welcomed into a Zoom meeting by Katie as she put her black glasses on top of her light brown flowy hair and asked us all how we were doing. When I was finally able to meet Katie in person for the first time her confidence was so strong it was almost contagious. She directs the room with tenacity, it was clear she was in charge and easily earned the respect of her peers. Their goal at Rose Haven is to work towards ending the cycle of homlessness specifically in Portland and they do this by trying to help as many women and children as possible. Rose Haven is working to achieve this goal by fundraising, holding events to raise awareness, working with volunteers from the community, and simply treating people with kindness instead of judgement. They welcome anyone but try to focus on helping women in need. If a male comes to Rose Haven they will provide some necessities like food and water but they typically do not let them inside for the safety of the women.
Katie’s day to day job varies depending on what is going on at the office. On a typical day, she walks down the stairs into the partially underground office space on 18th avenue of Northwest Portland where the offices are located on the bottom floor for a morning meeting at 8am with the rest of the staff. The main space is located around the corner with a seperate
entrance and a more open floor plan to accommodate large groups. Katie says her favorite moments are “definitely when [she] gets to be with the guest. I am just always so in awe of their positivity and resilience” even though her job revolves mainly around office work. Another thing she values is getting “to be a part of what [they] call community. It really just means when staff and volunteers and guests are in a shared space connecting with each other”. When guests came to Rose Haven, before the pandemic, they were welcomed inside the common room where they could sit and have consultation meetings with some of the staff and get set up with services. They were also able to use the showers and restrooms. After a consultation meeting Rose Haven guests are given food, clothing, hygiene kits, school supplies or toys for their children or whatever else they need that Rose Haven is able to provide. Making connections is really important to Katie because she wants to make the guests feel welcome, and hear their stories so they can be helped and receive the support they need. Some women treat this day shelter like a home, “a lot of time women outside will bring a friend here like you would to your house to meet your family” ”. A day shelter, especially the ones specifically for women, are a safe place to stay and feel welcome. As soon as they enter the doors the guest is warmly greeted by the employees and provided with food, water, and other necessities. Having a positive sense of community is a core value at Rose Haven. Homeless women find out about shelters mainly from word of mouth, being brought there by friends who had positive experiences, along with the Street Roots guide which is given out for free in Portland. This guide is a small book full of information and resources such as the addresses of homeless shelters.
As Rose Haven has grown, they have made deep connections with their community. In 1997 when Rose Haven was founded by Catholic Charities, they only received donations from neighbors who were cleaning out their closets and would drop off a few items. Now Rose Haven
has built strong connections with companies such as Amazon. For example, a few weeks ago Amazon drove to the shelter after filming a commercial and dropped off suitcases, backpacks, bikes, and many other items. These are useful resources for the guests and even though it was
just a bike or two it made a very big difference in someone’s life. They also work with companies such as Nike and the Portland Airport that provide resources and supplies for the guests. The majority of these donations are items such as backpacks, school supplies and toys that Rose Haven is able to distribute to the guests.
Camping on the street isn’t safe for anyone, especially women and children. Rose Haven helps women find a shelter to live in while they are getting their lives organized since they only provide day services and not housing. Finding a shelter or more permanent housing is very dependent on the circumstances of that guest’s situation. “It’s a huge problem” Katie says, “to the extent that we can place people in a shelter. We can’t get them to a house that day”. If the women seeking help are in an abusive situation, there is a hotline operated through the Bradley Angle which is another homeless organization in Portland. They help women get out of abusive situations and find a safe place for them to go. Another situation is if the women seeking help have kids, there are certain shelters they can go to. Currently, many shelters in Portland are full due to the pandemic and CDC rules of social distancing which reduced capacity. Even before the pandemic, the list to get into housing is years long. Rose Haven provides mailboxes for the guests at Rose Haven, enabling them to receive mail and use this shelter as a contact in case someone calls about more permanent housing. Finding housing can be difficult for homeless people depending on their situation.
A major issue generally is mental health and mental illness. Katie shared with me that,“If you have someone in a mental health crisis there’s nowhere to go. Unless you are a threat to
yourself or others you are not allowed to take someone against their will”. Oregon does not have sufficient mental health and mental illness support. These are issues that affect the greater community and not just homeless people. Although, helping provide support for mental illness is a big step in setting homeless people up for success. Rose Haven acknowledged this gap in their facilities and decided to take action.
A year ago, Rose Haven received a grant to fund a mental health specialist on site. Although, when the pandemic hit they were unable to bring anyone new on. Instead of hiring someone full-time, Rose Haven has a program that started coming to the Rose Haven office once a week. It is called Bridges to Change. Katie explains to me, “They come to our parking lot because their goal is to meet people where they are and build a relationship with people to help them access resources outside of a safe space such as Rose Haven”. This helped provide the mental health support some of the guests need. They work to provide transitional housing which is housing for the homeless people to get them off the streets but isn’t a forever home.4
Having adequate mental health support is a huge barrier to being successful when getting a stable job and housing. Getting a house is an important step but it isn’t an insurance policy that you can get a job. While Rose Haven wants to help women find permanent housing, that isn’t the sole solution to ending homelessness. They can not just give them a home, but instead homeless people need the support to be set up for success. This means they are able to get a job and support themselves and their families. Rose Haven provides consultation meetings where they find out what the guest specifically needs and how they can support them. They provide materials such as food, water, hygiene kits, clothing, school supplies, toys for the children and many other critical items.
4“Services.” Bridges to Change. 02 July 2018. Web.
In the homeless community Katie explains to me that “there’s a lot of mental illness, drug use, and self medication and they are very interrelated and connected to where people are.” Drugs and mental health are really big factors in homlessness and if they are the root issues of the problem we are going to need to start here if we want to make changes in the homelessness cycle. Bringing people back indoors after the pandemic will be hard with regard to the mental health crisis. If some of these people have not been inside at all in the past year it will be a big transition for them as shelters start welcoming in more people or they are able to sit inside coffee shops, libraries, and other public spaces. Many of these people have been homeless the majority of their lives and it is important to note these transitions will be hard because they may have never lived inside or do not want to live inside.
Katie concluded by noting that, at the end of the day, “the most frustrating piece of what’s happening is we have started seeing homlessness as a problem with tents and garbage and we forget that it is about human beings”. While we want our cities to be clean, it is also important to acknowledge that the trash is there mainly because we have many people living on our streets. While we could go pick up the trash, that would not be addressing the root of the problem which is the overwhelming amount of homeless citizens in Portland. Sometimes putting things into perspective makes a big difference so instead of just seeing a person on the side of the road in a tent, Katie says “we need to remember that it is somebody’s child in that tent” and that “getting Portland out of this homeless crisis is going to take all of us not just the government or the private sector, but it will take the commitment of everybody”. To be a good citizen, we need to care for each other and uplift each other when we are in need. Without the help and commitment of the larger community the homeless crisis will only get worse. Katie continued on saying, “I feel like I meet a lot of people who could have been me if I did not have the right safety net in
place or support at a certain time in my life or the kind of upbringing that I had”. Personally this resonated with me because whenever I saw homeless people I never really thought too deeply about how they got to where they were or what experiences lead them here. A major issue that is preventing change is the judgment people have and our first step in making changes needs to be committing to not having judgment. While it is hard to grasp and can be overwhelming, the homeless community needs our help, even though Katie says we may “want to throw our hands up and say it’s too much but we all need to be accountable for how human beings in our neighborhoods are being treated.” To get involved, reference the resources guide below.
In order to end this homeless crisis in Portland our community needs to stop judging and assuming and instead start working to make change. As Katie said, this crisis will not end with solely the help of the government and social workers but instead it will take everyone’s help. To take action, reach out to your local homeless shelter and donate items or even your time. Stopping to listen to people and ask how you may be able to support them goes a long way. We are all human and each one of us have had different experiences that lead us to where we are today.
Link to sign up for Rose Haven fundraising events: https://rosehaven.org/helping/attend-event/ Link to donate to Rose Haven directly: https://rosehaven.org/helping/one-time-gift/ Link to fill out a volunteer application: https://rosehaven.org/helping/volunteer/ Things that are useful to donate to homeless people directly:
● Food or water
● Grocery store gift cards
● Menstrual products (pads, tampons, unscented baby wipes)
● Sanitation supplies (hand sanitizer, toiletries, ect)
● Hand warmers
● Clothes (socks, gloves, jackets)
Also reference this resource guide for other volunteer opportunities around the Portland area: https://www.portlandoregon.gov/toolkit/69886
“The Effect of COVID-19 on Homelessness in the US: United Way.” United Way NCA. 16 Feb. 2021. Web. 07 May 2021.
Ellis, Rebecca. “Federal Analysis Shows Oregon’s Homeless Population in Decline Prior to Pandemic.” Opb. OPB, 19 Mar. 2021. Web. 07 May 2021.
Griffith, Joel. “Why Portland’s Homeless Problem Is the Worst in the Nation.” The Heritage Foundation. Web. 07 May 2021.
Lauren Baldwin, Contributing Author. “Oregon Domestic Violence Laws.” Www.criminaldefenselawyer.com. Nolo, 06 Nov. 2019. Web. 07 May 2021. “New “Safe Sleep Policy” Legalizes Homeless Camping in Portland, Oregon.” Smart Cities Dive. Web. 07 May 2021.
Vespa, Maggie. “Amid Surging COVID-19 Rates, Multnomah County Seeks to Delay Federally Mandated Homeless Count.” Kgw.com. KGW, 05 Jan. 2021. Web. 07 May 2021.
Molly Harbarger. “Coronavirus Could Hit Oregon Homeless Population Particularly Hard.” Oregonlive. 04 Mar. 2020. Web. 10 May 2021.
Molly Harbarger. “Portland Opens Three Outdoor Homeless Camps to Try to Contain Spread of Coronavirus.” Oregonlive. 13 Apr. 2020. Web. 10 May 2021.
Vespa, Author: Maggie. “COVID-19 Infection Count among Portland’s Homeless Remains Low.” Kgw.com. 05 May 2020. Web. 10 May 2021.
O’Brien, Katie. Interview. 21, April 2021.
VanderHart, Dirk. “Gov. Kate Brown Issues Order Directing Oregonians To ‘Stay Home’.” Opb. OPB, 03 June 2020. Web. 06 June 2021.
https://www.opb.org/news/article/oregon-stay-at-home-order-coronavirus-covid-19-kate-brown/ “Services.” Bridges to Change. 02 July 2018. Web. 06 June 2021.
“New “Safe Sleep Policy” Legalizes Homeless Camping in Portland, Oregon.” Smart Cities Dive. Web. 06 June 2021.