Emails Show County Officials Beseeched Employees to Staff Warming Shelters

County officials say they began scouting locations for cold weather shelters this summer, after a heat dome blistered the city. More sites meant greater staffing needs.

In a cold snap lasting over a week, nearly 800 volunteers worked 1,500 shifts to operate seven shelters where unhoused people could keep warm. Many of the volunteers keeping shelter doors open were county employees summoned by emails from their bosses, who combined moral exhortation with monetary incentives.

Emails reviewed this week by WW show that county workers were offered 20% premium pay for hours worked at shelters. In several emails, county officials said they especially needed medical professionals and behavioral health specialists to deal with the needs of people who typically sleep on the streets.

The emails show the urgency with which officials responded to the winter forecast—and also the degree to which winter conditions stretched Portland-area resources.

County officials say they began scouting locations for cold weather shelters this summer, after a heat dome blistered the city. “We also learned that we needed to open more shelters—both to expand our geographic reach and to spread people out to reduce the risk from COVID,” says county spokeswoman Kate Yeiser. More sites meant greater staffing needs.

One man, who was housed, died of exposure on Christmas Day, and the Multnomah County medical examiner is investigating two other deaths, on Dec. 30 and Jan. 1, as possibly from hypothermia.


Time: 1:16 pm Monday, Dec. 27

From: Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury

To: Multnomah County all employees

Subject: Help needed for severe weather shelters

“With temperatures dropping and more snow expected, these shelters are life-saving.

“We are offering incentive pay for every shift worked. Managers will receive incentives for every day worked. Anyone who completes eight shifts will receive an additional paid holiday.”


Time: 11:47 am Wednesday, Dec. 29

From: Multnomah County Chief Operating Officer Serena Cruz

To: Multnomah County all employees

Subject: Urgent needs tonight. We need your help at the shelters

“Last night, we were able to provide a warm dry bed and meal to 448 people because of your incredible work.

“But our outreach teams are really worried about tonight. People who are surviving outside and who’ve toughed it out so far are going to be really challenged by the low temperatures in the forecast.

“We need your help to open more space at the Oregon Convention Center and other shelters. There is incentive pay for any shift you complete.”


Time: 5:01 pm Thursday, Dec. 30

From: Multnomah County Chief Operating Officer Serena Cruz

To: Multnomah County all employees

Subject: URGENT - Our work to staff the shelters may not be over

“As you prepare to leave for the New Year’s weekend, I want to share an update. The weather is changing—and it looks more like we will open extreme weather shelters on Friday night.

“So as I continue to thank the countless County employees who have been so flexible and nimble as we staffed severe weather shelters over the past week, we need to turn to you yet again.

“We understand that things are moving quickly. And we cannot thank you enough for your support and flexibility as we weather this cold stretch to keep our neighbors warm.”

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