In early January, Portland was slapped with a long cold snap. It was hard on everyone, but especially the homeless—at least four people living outside on the streets of Portland died.

That tragedy helped galvanize ordinary Portland residents to prevent more deaths.

Vahid Brown, an advocate for the homeless who was one of the volunteers helping coordinate efforts across Multnomah County, recalls telling people: "There are people dying; we need to stop the deaths."

And so they did. At the end of a 19-day stretch of temperatures below 40 degrees, the county and city and a crew of volunteers had 800 beds available in emergency warming shelters.

(Illustration by Chiara Lanzieri)
(Illustration by Chiara Lanzieri)
 

Mayor Ted Wheeler took the unprecedented step of opening the Portland Building to the homeless.

But it was the volunteers who made it all work. Alongside one-time mayoral candidate Sarah Iannarone, Brown helped open the Mount Scott Community Center for several nights—a location the city-county joint office on homelessness agreed to fund only after being guaranteed a volunteer workforce.

It took only a few hours to get the shifts filled for a weekend of work.

"My community stepped up in every way possible to make this happen—food, clothing, volunteering time," says Iannarone. "One woman, recently homeless, staffed our 'General Store' area for three nights in a row. Their dedication was tireless."

Kat Stevens, better known for helping lead the anti-Trump protests of Portland's Resistance, helped with calling, texting and emailing volunteers who stepped up not just to work shifts, but provide transportation between shelters—a crew of people with four-wheel-drive vehicles was key.

They are just a few of the many from St. Johns to Gresham who lent a hand.

An unprecedented outpouring of support was possible because homeless advocates have organized after working alongside each other on the homeless camp along the Springwater Corridor, which was among the largest homeless camps in the country during the summer.

Portland Houseless Support Coalition now has a list of 500 volunteers. And it put them to good use.

"[The homeless deaths] spurred us to try and do better. It spurred us to create a bigger safety net, and we did," Brown says.

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