PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — The City of Portland is taking steps to make sure another part of the homeless community is able to stay safe. Officials are building three outdoor shelter spaces for campers so that they are able to have access to showers and can sleep a safe distance apart.

People started building a site in Southeast Portland on Friday. Located on SE Water Ave and Main Street, it’s being built so quickly that some frustrated business owners told KOIN 6 News that they just learned about the project today.

“My biggest concern is the lack of communication and dialogue — letting the property owners know this was coming, and coming today,” said Page Mesher, owner of Off the Wall Magnetics, which is located off of SE Main Street.

As Mesher watched the fencing go up and pallets come in, he started to make calls to try to figure out what was happening across the street from his business.

“This happened without any dialogue with the adjacent and abutting property owners,” said Mesher. “We came to work this morning and saw the activity and just from asking questions and walking around and making calls, we found out this was taking place.”

Outdoor emergency shelter at SE Water & Main St. in Portland. Pallets are spaced 10 feet apart to serve as platforms for tents and cots. April 10, 2020 (KOIN)

The Joint Office of Homeless Services made an official announcement about the construction of the three sites on Friday. One will be located in an empty lot off of NW 6th and Glisan Street, near Bud Clark Commons and the Pacific Northwest College of Art. Another is located on the central east side, and the third is on Water Avenue.

“It’s a place you’d be getting a tent, your cot and your sleeping bag, and it would be your space,” said Denis Theriault of the Joint Office of Homeless Services. He said it will operate similar to an indoor shelter, with meals provided.

Tents will sit on pallets spaced ten feet apart. A shower trailer and hand-washing or sanitizing stations will also be available to help stop the spread of the virus in a vulnerable population.

“If they get it, they are far more likely because they are often older or have underlying health conditions to get severe symptoms,” said Theriault.

He said the site will be managed by a non-profit and will only accept referrals.

JOIN, which does a lot of street outreach and does a lot of housing work in the community, they are managing the intake for these sites,” explained Theriault. “So, folks can’t just walk up or be dropped off.”

According to Theriault, the project had proactive support from large business organizations before they made the announcement.

“The Executive Director of the CEIC Business District was aware of the project, and in contact with the Mayor’s office”, said Theriault. 

The Portland Business Alliance’s president, Andrew Hoan, also said this in support of the project on behalf of the PBA’s members.

“The number one priority for the business community is an effective public health response to the COVID-19 outbreak. Once again, Portland is ahead of the curve. Prioritizing the unsheltered among us by creating emergency temporary sheltering sites where needed medical services can be accessed, and physical distancing measures are applied, is absolutely necessary at this time for our most vulnerable neighbors,” said Andrew Hoan, president and CEO of the Portland Business Alliance.

Mesher said he is still looking for a point of contact. He said because of unsanctioned camping activity already in the area, he is concerned about safety for newcomers.

“We, the property owners, want to be a part of the solution as good citizens and people who care, but it needs to be thought out and it needs to be communicated and there needs to be a point of contact,” said Mesher. “There is a different mood and a different vibe when it’s not 72 degrees and blue sky here. I’m concerned if there are going to be families and children coming through this area in proximity to the homeless that are camped out here.”

As for the safety concerns, Theriault said the sites will all be staffed, and fenced, with a single point of entry. The emergency shelter is only for adults — no one under the age of 18 will be allowed in.

“Once the sites are open next week, 24-hour contact info for each of the sites will be shared with the Central Eastside Industrial Council, the area’s business district,” said Theriault.

Letter from OTCA Chair to community neighbors:

FAQ for Outdoor Emergency Shelters