Last night, Portlanders received 1 to 5 inches of snow, depending on their neighborhood. Yet the emergency weather shelters that serve houseless people in Multnomah County did not open last night, nor this morning.
City Commissioners Dan Ryan and Jo Ann Hardesty have called for a reevaluation of the Joint Office of Homeless Services’ criteria for opening such shelters during inclement weather.
“I want to take this opportunity to say that we need to reevaluate our temperature threshold system that impacts emergency shelter activation,” Ryan wrote on Twitter on Monday. “This snow is wet and heavy—tents are battling this weight just like downed limbs and trees—and if it is cold enough to snow, it is cold enough to activate our emergency response and bring Portlanders indoors.”
Hardesty echoed Ryan’s call for a reevaluation: “I agree with Commissioner Ryan that we need to reevaluate our temperature threshold system for emergency shelter activation,” she wrote in response. (Both Ryan and Hardesty are seeking reelection in May.)
The Joint Office will open severe weather shelters when any of the following criteria are met: Meteorologists predict an inch or more of snow, temperatures are expected to drop below 25 degrees, or below-freezing temperatures coupled with precipitation are expected for longer than four hours.
But the Joint Office did not make the decision to open the shelters yesterday, saying that none of those criteria as of late Sunday morning had been met.
Around this time of year, the Joint Office has shifted where it holds shelter supplies in preparation for summers says Joint Office spokesperson Denis Theriault. And one of the buildings normally opened as a severe warming shelter, at 120 Southeast Market Street, is currently undergoing construction to become a 125-bed permanent women’s shelter. (That’s the same project legally challenged by a big time developer last month.)
“We typically need to see a confident forecast by late morning to muster the staff and resources and logistical work to open hundreds of severe weather shelter beds that night,” Theriault tells WW. “We also need time to get the word out so people know shelters are open. This most recent storm, because it defied predictions and arrived so late, didn’t give us the chance to make those calls and undertake that work.”
Theriault says Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury’s office told Ryan’s office earlier this year, after his office inquired about changing the thresholds for opening severe weather shelters: “We are open to a conversation about thresholds as part of our after-action process. But that is a community conversation, and it’s about how every single one of us in this partnership will need to contribute more.”
“Our thresholds were developed by the city of Portland before the JOHS was formed; the JOHS took them and worked with all of those partners to help build the strong, systematic response we have in place today,” Theriault says.
Today, the Joint Office began handing out tents, tarps, warm clothes and other supplies.