Two meetings in Portland Tuesday provided evidence that a groundswell of support is building among city officials and advocates for the homeless for the city to buy a couple motels from financially strapped owners to use first as short-term homeless shelters, then as long-term affordable housing.
City commissioners appeared to be more supportive of the city using federal coronavirus relief money to buy a motel or two than to pay a hotel owner rooms charges over the long term to house homeless residents.
Immediately after the City Council held its discussion, advocates convened a separate “virtual town hall” to push for hotels and motels as a solution to homelessness during the pandemic and into the future.
The Portland Housing Bureau has already started to tour hotels and motels in various parts of the city, including downtown and other areas hardest hit by homeless encampments, according to the bureau’s director. The city has not heard a solid answer on what one might cost, nor has the housing bureau named which ones might be up for sale.
But both city and county officials indicated in recent weeks it is likely that at least one will be added to the city’s homeless services portfolio.
Part of the reason is that city officials balked at a nearly $50 million price tag to maintain the city’s coronavirus-related homeless shelter beds for the next year to 18 months. That is the single biggest expense proposed by the city-county Joint Office of Homeless Services in its pitch for a $56 million share of federal coronavirus relief funding.
The city received $114 million from the federal CARES law. City commissioners heard proposals Tuesday for how to spend the money. Multnomah County also received $28 million from the law, and will also have to decide how much to dedicate to homeless services.
The Joint Office of Homeless Services shifted 375 shelter beds into new spaces in the first two months of the pandemic to allow people in homeless shelters to socially distance. Those are in three community centers owned by Portland Parks and Recreation and the Oregon Convention Center, owned by Metro.
When Multnomah County starts to reopen, those shelters will likely be shut down and the buildings converted back to their original purposes.
So city and county officials plan to move the people in those shelters into rented rooms, along with the 120 beds in hotel rooms that are currently designated for people who are sick or have tested positive for COVID-19.
Those 495 rooms would cost nearly $9 million for the five remaining weeks of fiscal year 2020 and then about $40 million for 2020-21.
Joint Office Executive Director Marc Jolin said that is the cost of not only renting the rooms — below market rate, so far — but also providing meals, hygiene supplies and social service support to the people staying in them.
“Wow,” said Commissioner Chloe Eudaly. “That’s really high.”
Mayor Ted Wheeler agreed: “It is extraordinarily high.”
Wheeler then wondered aloud how the city could leverage that $40 million into a permanent solution for homelessness. Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty suggested using the shuttered Concordia University campus and the closed Greyhound bus station downtown as housing opportunities.
“If we’re going to spend $40 million and we have nothing at the end of it, there’s something fundamentally wrong with our response,” Hardesty said.
But after the hand-wringing, commissioners were silent when Portland Housing Bureau Director Shannon Callahan said that buying motels would cut the costs of sheltering nearly 500 homeless people in half.
She did not attach a dollar figure to the plan but said that the motels could be converted to affordable housing for the next five to 10 years after the pandemic is over, and then held for future development into permanent supportive housing or other community needs in the long term.
The city has already started to plunge into a form of affordable housing called single-room occupancy units — SROs more commonly – that are similar to motel rooms. Each person gets a small one-room living space and shares bathrooms and other common facilities.
A motel would be similar but also provide private bathrooms and possibly room to cook.
It’s an idea that appears to have support among homeless people.
A Portland State University study published last week says that 53% of homeless people surveyed would pick a hotel or motel room as their top choice for temporary housing.
The survey was meant to be a quick snapshot, and not exhaustive study, so data collectors only asked 97 people.
The preference for motels or hotels held true for nearly every demographic represented in the survey
, but especially by people who have a mental illness or physical disability, those 55 or older and people of color — three of the populations hardest hit by COVID-19.
The second-most favored choice — 13% — was a designated area for parking RVs or cars with access to bathrooms and hand-washing stations.
Others want self-organized tent camps with assurances that they won’t be swept, similar to how Portland has approached campsite clean ups so far during the pandemic.
“The obvious contradiction of empty (motel) rooms and roomless people is always a stark fact of inequality,” said Street Roots Executive Director Kaia Sand.
Street Roots helped survey homeless people and organized the town hall as a push by the nonprofit to get city and state officials to act on the survey’s results.
“Just because we haven’t fixed it before doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try now,” Sand said.
The Portland area is not alone in its move toward hotel rooms as a more permanent component of homeless services.
King County bought an EconoLodge motel the first week of March, just three days after Washington announced its first coronavirus death.
Jimmy Jones, executive director of the Mid-Willamette Valley Community Action Agency based in Salem, said that six months ago, he would have been adamant that providing hotel rooms is a waste of precious homelessness dollars.
The agency is one of the main providers of homeless services in Marion County, which is home to both the highest number of COVID-19 cases per capita in Oregon and a raging debate about how to deal with a growing homelessness crisis in Salem.
Now, though, Jones sees a lot of use for hotel rooms as one option going forward. The agency is spending about $70,000 a week putting an average of 130 people in motel rooms.
It’s pricey, but so are mass shelters that could be a hazard to people with weakened immune systems, as many homeless people have from living in harsh conditions, Jones said.
“It might not make a whole lot of sense anymore to force a lot of folks who are sick into very small spaces where they are doomed to infect and contaminate each other,” Jones said.
Everton Bailey Jr. contributed to this report.
— Molly Harbarger