ONE HOMELESS MAN is known to have died of exposure in Portland's unprecedented December snow, but thanks to a largely successful collaboration between the city, homeless service providers, and the Portland Office of Emergency Management (POEM), hundreds of others were assisted.
The unnamed man, who died in Lone Fir Cemetery on SE Morrison, was reportedly contacted by outreach workers, but rebuffed their repeated pleas to get inside. He was buried on Tuesday, January 6, the same day City Commissioner Nick Fish called a "hotwash" debriefing meeting at city hall to discuss emergency coordination efforts.
In addition to the city's regular homeless shelters, the Red Cross kept two emergency warming shelters open for 14 days from December 14, with Fish seeking assistance from POEM on December 17, after realizing that the Bureau of Housing and Community Development (BHCD) was facing coordination issues as hundreds of homeless rushed to get inside.
Nevertheless, conditions at the centers were hairy at times.
"It felt like a shift from saving lives to, 'Hey, this is a cool place to hang out, and let's go outside, get drunk, and come back in,' and we had an increase in altercations," said Eric Corliss, director of Emergency Services for the Oregon Trail Chapter of the American Red Cross.
Center volunteer Mohammad Ali, who worked at the Red Cross center at the Foursquare Church on SE Ankeny, said there had been a lot of drug activity around the centers, not to mention teenage drinking.
"In fact, police officers brought two boys to me saying, 'Nobody else will take them, can you?' and I said 'yes,'" Ali told the Mercury.
"But that's what we're about," added Ali's fellow volunteer, Sarah Morrigan. "Saving lives, and taking the people nobody else will take."
In light of the single death, Fish, a former civil rights attorney, said at the meeting that he might consider revisiting the laws for involuntarily pulling a homeless person into a warming shelter in extreme weather. He also expressed concern about the city's legal liability for volunteers in emergency shelters, given "the number of registered sex offenders and people with warrants" that he met in the emergency centers.
"But there was a clear shift from a less coordinated response to a more coordinated response as we hit our stride," said Ryan Deibert of BHCD. "And the challenge now is, how can we replicate that level of coordination in a more sustainable way?"