On the morning of March 14, a motel near Portland International Airport asked a group of older homeless women who had stayed there the prior night to leave.
The women intended to stay at Portland Suites Airport East for at least a week, to avoid a homeless shelter and therefore lower their risk of contracting COVID-19. Their stay was organized by Human Solutions, Inc. a nonprofit that booked 15 suites at the motel for a week, in order to house up to 28 women who had been staying at the Gresham Women's Shelter.
The arrangement is part of a larger effort started last week by Multnomah County to provide hotel vouchers for homeless people who are at higher risk of dying from the illness, including people over 60 and with certain underlying health conditions.
The executive director of Human Solutions says the motel's owner discriminated against the women because they were homeless and he feared they might carry the virus.
"We pointed out, 'Hey, it's snowing this morning,'" says executive director Andy Miller. "This is a terrible time to be relocating vulnerable folks who are homeless. … He made comments like he didn't want our people infecting his customers. Pretty ugly."
The owner of the hotel, Devon Kumar, spoke to WW and denied Miller's claim. Instead, he says, the women appeared to be high on drugs.
He says the women's behavior caused the motel's night-desk clerk to quit. "The 25 guests that came in, they were harassing him all night, they keep going out for cigarette breaks, and they were basically on drugs and stuff," he tells WW. "The city is paying for this."
The city and Multnomah County are indeed footing the bill and officials decried the decision as discrimination in the face of a public health crisis.
"This is unconscionable," says Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury. "More than ever, we need to come together to protect the most vulnerable people in our community, not resort to prejudice and fear."
The incident also raises a logistical problem for Portland and Multnomah County governments as well as other groups, as they move to safeguard the most vulnerable groups in society. These governments need motels to serve as de facto shelters for people fleeing disease outbreaks. If managers won't cooperate, officials have few other options.
There have been earlier accounts of discrimination against Asian-Americans as the new coronavirus pandemic first came to the United States. This allegation of discrimination against homeless people during the pandemic strikes Miller as a significant concern.
"Aside from being potentially a civil rights violation, this is the direct opposite of the kind of behavior we want to see in the country right now," Miller says.
The city-county Joint Office of Homeless Services is also funding motel rooms for homeless people during the COVID-19 crisis who have COVID-19 symptoms, in order to separate them from the mass setting of a shelter. That was not the case with the Portland Suites Airport East. In this case, none of the women in the Gresham shelter are exhibiting symptoms, Miller says.
Kumar says he has nothing against homeless people. "Every day we have people staying there that are homeless and have no housing," says Kumar. "And we don't mind. We are a cheap budget hotel. This is a completely bull crap story."