Homelessness is nothing new, but it's an issue that's become more visible in the Portland-metro area as rising rents and a lack of affordable housing have forced hundreds of people to live on the streets.
On any given night in Multnomah County, nearly 1,700 people are sleeping unsheltered and another 2,500 are sleeping in shelters or transitional housing.
During the winter months, the homeless population is even more vulnerable, and on nights when temperatures dip below freezing, officials try to get as many people as possible out of the cold by opening up severe-weather shelters.
Volunteers are needed to help staff the shelters, and some 20 Metro employees are among those who have signed up so far to assist.
"This is the most direct line of service that you can provide anyone," Gabriel Court, emergency operations manager for Transition Projects, the county's severe-weather shelter provider, said during a training session Friday. "This is instantaneous — you're helping someone out and you're saving their life. You're making a connection with them and you're bringing them back into the community and you know that you have a part in at least 325 people surviving a night."
Year round, the nonprofit runs a day center, four emergency shelters and three short-term residential housing programs. But they also open three overflow shelters as part of Portland and Multnomah County's severe-weather plan: Bud Clark Commons, at 655 NW Hoyt Street in Portland, Imago Dei Community Center. at 1302 SE Ankeny Street in Portland, and the Sunrise Center, 18901 East Burnside Street in Gresham.
Together, they can host 325 people. If the severe weather persists and demand exceeds capacity, the county will work with other agencies to open more shelters that can sleep another 700 people.
Officials activate the shelters when temperatures are forecasted to drop below 25 degrees, when there's the probability of having at least one inch of snow on the ground or there's a combination of rain and at-or-below-freezing temperatures. Extreme temperature fluctuations or wind chill could also trigger the opening of warming centers.
Last year during one of the coldest winters in recent memory, the severe-weather shelters opened its doors 27 nights. They have been opened eight times so far this year.
Once the call is made, the 211 hotline is notified, outreach teams and police and fire departments fan out directing people to the shelters (and sometimes, transport them), and volunteers are recruited.
Volunteers can choose from one of three shifts: 7 p.m. to 12:30 a.m., midnight to 6 a.m. and 5:30 to 8:30 a.m.
The duties include setting up the sleeping areas, restocking supplies in the restrooms, handing out coffee and blankets, helping to keep the peace and cleaning everything up in the morning.
Court encouraged volunteers to keep an open mind and lend an ear if a guest needs someone to talk to.
"We don't know what someone's encountered before coming into our space," he said. "Different people experience homelessness differently based on their situation and identity … so treating folks equally and fairly and kindly is going to be your biggest benefit."
Many of those who attended the training said it was their work with Metro that pushed them to want to do more and get involved.
Roger Gonzalez, chief of staff to Metro Council President Tom Hughes, said it was especially important as Metro tackles the issue of affordable housing and considers a possible bond measure later this year.
"At the end of the day, we're talking about people and I don't think we can truly talk about those people and people that we think we're trying to serve if we're not actually willing to go down and experience and help in ways that we can," he said. "We're talking about a real regional community; we ought to be the first to step up."
For more information on volunteering or donating winter gear, visit 211info.org/donations.