A Letter to the City of Portland & Multnomah County:

Closing of Warming Shelters Shows Need for Updated Policy and Community Resilience Hubs

Read Commissioner JVP’s response HERE

We are writing this letter as partners in East Portland to Multnomah County and the City of Portland during extreme weather events, including the most recent one in January 2024. We believe that both the City and County have failed to prevent human suffering in East Portland during extreme weather events, as evidenced by the testimonies of our community members below. We demand answers, as well as specific actions from the County and City going forward to prevent further human suffering and loss of life in Portland and especially in East Portland, which is disproportionately impacted by extreme weather events. 

Thrive East PDX is working on solutions that meet the needs of local residents. Our coalition of Partners wants to work with the City and the County to prevent these failures of response from continuing. The 25 East Portland Partner organizations have worked collaboratively since the fall of 2020 to develop community resilience programs focused at the family and neighborhood level. We seek workable solutions in response to disruptive events like the pandemic, climate or environmental disasters. We believe our community deserves to thrive, not just survive, in these current conditions, and so we try to improve preparedness ahead of time and help people understand how to find the resources they need through community building and outreach before these dangerous and disruptive events occur.

We have a plan and program to test a local and specific model for organizational commitment to preparedness and responsive solutions in the Centennial neighborhood. This project is the priority for 2024 as part of our Community Resilience Program. Our partners on this pilot are Centennial Neighborhood Emergency Team and the Portland Bureau of Emergency Management. We will be conducting a year-long project to weave together information, locations and resources in the Centennial neighborhood that residents can use to find support they need during climate and other disruptions.

“We have been working on building the fabric of the community through mutual aid and we will do a test starting April 2024 to increase the response from elected officials to be more effective in our communities. Our Partners have told us what is needed to be successful in this work,” said Gayle Palmer, a member of the Thrive East PDX Vision Team.

One of our members, New Avenues for Youth, did boots-on-the-ground outreach and support in the days leading up to the storm. “We need to know more ahead of time, longer than two days before the storm when the County notified us, where the shelters will be in order to adequately support people in getting there and taking advantage of this life-saving resource,” said Malik Alexander, the East Connect Manager for New Avenues for Youth.

“I personally received a lot of calls from isolated community members in East Portland without electricity or internet, looking for somewhere to go to warm up,” recalls Yoana Molina, Executive Director of Guerreras Latinas. “My brother was calling me to ask for shelter but my phone was dead because I had no way to charge it. The Latino community usually contact their family when they need help, because we tend to be very resourceful, but most Latino families own small cars, which made it impossible for them to travel with snow and ice covering the ground.”

“The County and City absolutely did not do enough to reach us with information, increase awareness, and provide resources or spaces. All they say is “call 211,” but 211 doesn’t answer, you are waiting and waiting, and then they take you to the website. We need solutions, not references, when we are in crisis. When we have an immediate need, we should be able to get a response or service referral where they know for sure you will receive help right away, not just information,” says the Guerreras Latinas leader.

“Our hearts break to hear of the suffering of the small businesses in our communities because they had damages and losses too, and where is the help for them” wondered Annete Stanhope, Interim Executive for Historic Parkrose.  Lorena Mora, Program Coordinator for Division-Midway Alliance, agreed that small businesses need these resources as well.

The storm impacted East Portland disproportionately because of the power outages. And there are fewer spaces here open to the community where people can go warm up and access the internet and phones for free. We tried to be a part of the solution with the County: when they put a call out for volunteers, we amplified that through our channels and we showed up to help. One such volunteer, Simone, couldn’t find space to actually volunteer because all the slots were full; yet, the shelters in Multnomah County still closed and remained closed, despite the voices of so many unhoused Portlanders, advocates, and nonprofit leaders across the region expressing grave worry and begging the county to reopen shelters. Windy and icy conditions persisted throughout the week, well past the projected warming trend that was supposed to alleviate the worst of the extreme weather, but was delayed by several days. Why was it that Clackamas County managed to keep their shelters open and we didn’t? What can we learn from their example?

Multnomah County was supported by the community and by the Governor who called a state of emergency to use their prerogative from bullet four in their criteria for opening shelters and “consider other conditions or circumstances during a severe weather event that could increase the risk to the community and activate elements included in this standard operating procedure.” Still, on January 20th, a week after the beginning of the winter storm that covered the city in a thick sheet of ice, libraries – potential places for folks to warm up or charge their devices – and county offices remained closed for the sixth consecutive day. Shelters remained closed while ice still covered the ground.

Where were people supposed to go to warm up or find shelter during that week? The County opted to open distribution centers after closing the shelters, but if the roads are too unsafe for county employees to work, how would they be safe for community volunteers to get to the distribution centers and then be able to drive around to distribute to houseless people and others in need?

We shouldn’t aim just to prevent death; we should aim to prevent human suffering, too,” said Sabina Urdes, Executive Director of East Portland Collective.

In light of all this, we demand the following answers and actions from Mulnomah County and the City of Portland:

  1. What specifically went wrong that caused a communication breakdown between the County and the City during the January 2024 winter storm? We are asking you to take accountability for what went wrong and detail to the community what steps you are taking to prevent this from happening in the future. To do better, we have to know better – we are asking you for the information that you have regarding what went wrong that would help us all do better for the next extreme weather event.
  2. We are asking you to re-examine the County shelter policy in the emergency weather policy for opening shelters and providing more flexibility to respond to actual conditions. We can’t prevent these events from happening, but we can help our residents be better prepared to withstand disruptions and continue to thrive.  We want to know how to work together to get better at communication and response.
  3. Once you change the policy for opening emergency shelters, we are asking you to be vocal and publicize the changes widely for your partner organizations to be aware and take action that supports their communities adequately.

Invest in Resilience Hubs year-round, not just during emergencies. Neighborhoods need support  and resources for more investment in year-round Community Resilience Hubs and Networks, like we are doing in the Centennial neighborhood.

Thrive East PDX Vision Team