Nov. 27, 2008 (From the Nov. 14, edition of Street Roots)
Warming centers replace ‘severe weather’ alerts for getting the sick and homeless off Portland’s wet streets (By Amanda Waldroupe, Contributing Writer)
The troubling results of the Portland Vulnerability Index survey on the health and likelihood of death among Portland’s homeless has spurred the city and housing bureau to act quickly as cold weather sets in.
On Wednesday, Nov. 19 the Portland City Council is expected to vote to provide $200,000 in funding to create two new “warming centers” that will allow 150 to 200 homeless individuals and families to escape the nighttime cold between November and March.
The proposal comes from City Commissioner Nick Fish and the Bureau of Housing and Community Development, which has already secured $100,000 from Multnomah County for a family-focused warming center. The council is also being asked to provide $42,000 to cover the shortfall in funding for already approved winter shelters for men and women.
In the past six months, Portland providers have reported a 50 to 60 percent increase in the number of families seeking shelter, showing that the national recession is having local repercussions, necessitating an increased safety net in times of scant resources.
“These aren’t numbers, they’re people,” says Dennis Lundberg, an outreach worker with Janus Youth, an agency serving homeless youths, “and they are sick.”
However, the numbers could be leveraged into more funding to meet the demand.
“I hope (the Vulnerability Index) leverages more resources,” says City Commission Nick
Fish, who oversees the city’s efforts to end homelessness. Fish notes that while the city and county are in the “teeth” of a recession, “the moral case is clear.”
“The bottom line is, with the results of the Vulnerability Index survey, we’re going to do a few things differently,” Fish says.
That includes targeting the most medically vulnerable individuals and “expeditiously” moving them into supportive housing.
To that end, the Bureau of Housing and Community Development will begin working to place 50 of the most medically vulnerable individuals into emergency winter housing.
Additionally, 10 of the most severely medically vulnerable will be placed into housing that provides health care.
The Vulnerability Index found that of the 646 people surveyed, nearly half (47 percent) face an increased risk of death if they remain homeless without medical treatment. That far exceeds the national average of 40-41 percent. (See “Measuring our Vulnerability,” Street Roots, Oct. 31, 2008)
One warming center is planned for downtown Portland; the second in East County. Both will be low-barrier, and priority will be given to families with children, youth under the age of 21, pregnant women and medically vulnerable adults.
The warming centers replace the city’s past program for severe weather, which provided additional emergency shelter on nights when the temperature dipped below freezing. Those services, by the housing bureau’s own assessment, were subjective, complicated, and rarely met the need for a warm place for everyone who needed them. This was especially true for families, pregnant women, youth and those with health concerns and other conditions that made them feel vulnerable. However, the warming centers will not offer any services beyond a blanket, mat on the floor or cot, and warm food.
The warming centers – essentially more shelters – would appear to be a backward step for a city emphasizing placing homeless individuals directly into permanent housing above all in its plan to end homelessness.
The dilemma between the belief that shelters waste money and resources because they do not solve homelessness, and the moral imperative many feel to provide homeless individuals an escape from the winter cold has, in the past, sparked tension.
What exists now, according to Fish, is not an “either or” model, but an understanding that shelters and other means of providing a safety net can co-exist with the city’s goal to end homelessness.
The results of the Vulnerability Index survey also increase the urgency of furthering the city’s long-term housing goals, including building the Resource Access Center (the new name for what had been called the homeless day access center) and more units of permanent supportive housing.
“I think warming centers are a good idea but they should be seen for what they are: Band-aid solutions to people dying on the streets of Portland during our coldest and wettest seasons,” Lundberg says.
Given the Vulnerability Index’s statistics, effective long-term solutions may involve increasing funding for “effective mental health resources, viable and affordable health coverage, and a broad array of addiction treatment options,” Lundberg says.
While capacity for providing health care has never seemed more necessary, Rachel Solotaroff, the medical director for the Old Town Clinic, says the Clinic’s capacity to provide health care to uninsured and low-income individuals is already “totally maxed out.”
“Not having the health care capacity is a huge issue,” Solotaroff says.
At the same time, Solotaroff says that some of the Vulnerability Index’s statistics show that the population of vulnerable adults is “not being reached.”