After Homeless Die in the Cold, Portland Opens Some Doors for the First Time

by | January 23, 2017

By Hal Bernton

Each evening during the recent cold spell, homeless people by the dozens filed through the doors of the city's main government office building.

They hauled plastic sacks filled with clothing and duffels stuffed with sleeping bags past the security-guard station in the front lobby. Then they boarded elevators for the brief ride up to second-floor conference rooms where they could spend the night.

"It's been brutal cold, and there's been a lot of bad," said Bill Madyou, a 68-year old Portlander who took refuge there. "But this has been part of the good. This was the only humanitarian thing to do. We got to go somewhere."

This was the first time The Portland Building -- adorned by the massive copper Portlandia statue of a kneeling woman holding a trident -- had ever welcomed the homeless. The Jan. 4 opening was ordered by new Mayor Ted Wheeler, who faced a searing start to his term with four homeless deaths linked to hypothermia during his first two weeks on the job. There also was the discovery of a baby -- later ruled by medical examiners to have been stillborn -- carried to a bus stop by a homeless woman.

These deaths rattled the residents of a city that -- like Seattle -- has seen its urban landscape defined not only by a burst of new construction, but a backdrop of tent cities and, each night, bedrolls unfurled in store entryways.

During the early January cold spell, there was a keener sense of the crisis as ice and then about a foot of snow fell on the city and homeless people died. The resulting mobilization offered a glimpse of what's possible when government and ordinary residents pull together.

Police, often tasked with clearing homeless people from public spaces, were told to bring them inside to public shelters. Fire & Rescue employees and other government workers joined in.

Residents donated warm clothes, socks, blankets and other supplies, and the mayor told them to keep a lookout for people who were struggling, tucked away in the woods or elsewhere out of view.

Community groups, often splintered into different tasks and missions, broke down their silos to work together. They helped provide food, staff and other resources during the first two weeks in January for nearly a dozen emergency shelters that eventually opened for up to 750 people who might otherwise sleep outside.

"I think everyone is pretty tired now," said Mike Whitey, a homeless advocate who pulled all-night shifts as a volunteer at The Portland Building shelter. "But absolutely, it's an inspiration. ... It is something that I hoped would happen a long time ago. It's unfortunate for people to have to die make it happen."

"A community moment"

Even before this cold snap, deaths among the homeless have been on the rise in Portland.

In 2015, 88 homeless people died in the city and surrounding Multnomah County, according to a county report. That was nearly triple the deaths tracked three years earlier and nearly as many as the 91 deaths tracked that year in King County, which has a significantly higher homeless population.

Many deaths, though, are not caused by the cold. As in Seattle, alcohol and drugs are often to blame. Of the 2015 Multnomah County deaths, 44 percent were due to substance abuse, according to county medical-examiner records of those presumed homeless.

For protection from the elements, the homeless, in increasing numbers, use tarps and tents. And last year, then-Portland Mayor Charlie Hales authorized, and later rescinded, a controversial safe-sleep policy that allowed temporary structures on sidewalks between the hours of 9 p.m. and 7 a.m.

But police found the policy difficult to enforce, and many of the encampments stayed up all day. And some critics viewed the policy as an opening for more homeless to come to Portland.

Hales did not run for re-election in 2016. He was succeeded by Wheeler, who had worked in finance and gained political clout as the elected chairman of the Multnomah County Commission and later as state treasurer.

Homelessness was a big issue in the mayoral campaign, and Wheeler has proposed policies that include a push to increase shelter space and experimentation with clusters of tiny houses with running water and other amenities. Wheeler also is focusing on an expansion of affordable housing that got a boost in November as voters passed a $250 million bond measure.

Wheeler was sworn in Dec. 30.

He then quickly faced the need for action as three hypothermia-linked deaths -- of two men and a woman -- occurred during his first nine days in office. Their bodies were found near a bus stop, underneath a blanket by a storefront and in a parking garage.

Around a dozen emergency shelters were operating, including at The Portland Building, which opened to the homeless Jan. 4.

But for whatever reasons, the three were unable -- or unwilling -- to get out of the cold. Alcohol appeared to play a role in the men's deaths, as it lowered their resistance to the cold, according to Karen Gunson, the Oregon state medical examiner.

On Jan. 10 came news of the fourth death.

Zachary Young, 29, was a troubled young man whom The Oregonian later reported had suffered a brain injury as a teenager when he fell off a skateboard, and had struggled with extreme paranoia. He was found on a wooded hillside, where he appeared to have made a camp.

This last death, coming so quickly after the others, hit hard.

"This is a community moment," Wheeler told reporters. "This is an all hands-on-deck situation, and that is why we are asking to the public to help out, be our eyes for us in the community. Help us identify someone who might need help."

In Seattle, additional emergency shelters also were set up during the cold spells, including one in City Hall for a few days in December. And the city contracted for vans to offer transportation.

So far, it is unclear whether any deaths of homeless people were linked to hypothermia.

The King County Medical Examiner's office does not yet have that information available for release, according to James Apa, a county public-health spokesman.

Detective Patrick Michaud, a Seattle Police Department spokesman, says he's not aware of any reports of hypothermia deaths during the January cold snap, which in Seattle lacked the snow that added to Portland's problems.

End of the emergency

The Portland emergency shelters stayed open through Wednesday morning.

During their final evening of operation, a tour of the downtown area found only a scarce few still outdoors.

By a 7-Eleven, Tony Phillips, an elderly man from Florida who said he was drawn to Oregon by the legalization of marijuana, had unrolled his sleeping bag.

Phillips said he had stayed in shelters through most of the cold. But that night, he had intended to try a new shelter that didn't allow smoking breaks, and he wasn't sure he could last the night without a cigarette.

"They said once you go in, you couldn't go out, and I figured that would be a problem," Phillips said.

He opted to pack up his gear for another shelter with fewer restrictions.

At The Portland Building, the doors were open all night. People could bring pets, as long as they were kept on a leash, and take smoking breaks away from the building.

This attracted overflow crowds, with an initial capacity of 100 stretched by the final night to about 120. Space was tight where people slept on rugs covered with protective plastic.

Jim Patterson, a 27-year-old Nike employee who volunteered as a monitor, said things were relatively calm except for one minor scuffle.

Yet a security guard, surveying the trash in a hallway, was skeptical of the shelter operation.

"It's difficult to try to create a living space when this is an office space. There are not enough facilities for everyone here," he said.

By the next morning, janitors were sweeping and mopping the hallway floors, and everyone -- except for Madyou and his partner, Angela Borovicka -- had cleared out.

Madyou, who came to Portland as a boy and held jobs as a welder, cook and janitor, said he had been homeless for a decade. Borovicka, 56, said she was evicted from an apartment last spring.

The couple had more than a half-dozen bags of stuff, and no way to transport them because they lost their shopping carts during the cold spell.

So, once they got outside The Portland Building, they set their belongings down, and pondered their next move.

(c)2017 The Seattle Times