Portland-area governments are extending the use of two winter homeless shelters into spring, expecting that more people living on the streets will need a place to sleep indoors as the novel coronavirus spreads.
Multnomah County officials say people diagnosed with COVID-19 won't be staying at the two shelters. But they expect to shelter people fleeing camps where the virus may spread, as well as people with symptoms.
"We want to maintain our year-round bed capacity," said Denis Theriault, a spokesman for the city-county joint office of homeless services. "People with respiratory symptoms may be in our shelters. No one with a confirmed COVID diagnosis will be in our shelters."
The shelters will be open to anyone who needs housing, Theriault said, and not specific to people who are sick. But in general, unhoused people may be more susceptible to contracting illness because they don't always have access to running water, soap, and other means of sanitation.
The two winter shelters typically close in March. But this spring the 5th Avenue Shelter in downtown Portland and the North Portland Emergency Warming Shelter in the Portsmouth neighborhood will remain open for the foreseeable future so the county can maintain a higher bed count, expecting that more people will fall ill.
The 5th Avenue Shelter, located in Southwest Portland, can house up to 75 people. The North Portland shelter, located in Portsmouth Union Church, has 50 to 60 beds, Theriault said.
The city-county office is still deciding the layout of the shelters, so the bed counts may be lowered, Theriault said, in order to comply with space guidelines given the fact that the shelters are likely to be housing people who are ill.
Anyone who's coughing in the shelters needs to wear a mask, according to county health guidelines, and there will be at least six feet between the beds of those who are coughing or have other symptoms of illness, and those who do not. If someone tests positive for COVID-19, they will be quarantined elsewhere.
The decision is part of the joint office's broader plan to aid unhoused people in the wake of the COVID-19 spread.
The office is also collaborating with various advocacy groups to hand out face masks and hand sanitizer at the city's homeless camps, beginning on March 11 through March 18.
To date, Oregon has 14 confirmed cases of COVID-19. The majority have been in Washington County, and half of the cases are of people 55 and older.