PORTLAND, Ore. — After three years on the streets, Tiecha Vannoy and her boyfriend Chris Foss plan to weather the pandemic this winter in a small white “pod” with electricity, heat and enough room for two.
Portland this month assembled neat rows of the shelters, which resemble garden sheds, in three ad-hoc “villages” — part of an unprecedented effort unfolding in cold-weather cities nationwide to keep people without permanent homes safe as temperatures drop and coronavirus cases surge.
“We just get to stay in our little place. We don’t have to leave here unless we want to,” said Vannoy, wiping away tears as they moved into the shelter near a downtown train station. “It’s been a long time coming. He always tells me to have faith, but I was just over it.”
The pandemic has caught homeless service providers in a crosscurrent: demand is high but their ability to provide services is constricted. Shelter operators who already cut capacity to meet social distance requirements face new stresses with winter looming. Coming in from the cold can now mean spending a night in a warehouse, an old Greyhound bus station, schools or an old jail.
And people experiencing homelessness face difficult choices. Many are hesitant to enter the reduced number of spaces available to escape the cold for fear of catching the virus.
“Those (are) folks who would under normal circumstances maybe come into a drop-in center to warm up, or go into the subway to warm up, or go into a McDonald’s to warm up — and just not having those options available to them. What then?” asked Giselle Routhier of the Coalition for the Homeless in New York City.
By some projections, coronavirus cases will increase into January, when longer cold snaps tend to increase demand for shelter. With the extension of a federal eviction moratorium that ends Dec. 31 in limbo, housing advocates predict up to 23 million Americans could lose their housing.
With more space needed, providers have gotten creative.
In Troy, N.Y., Joseph’s House and Shelter is renting 19 rooms in an old convent for a seasonal shelter. The Poverello Center in Missoula, Montana, cut its capacity by half in April and scrambled to add 150 socially distant beds at a new winter shelter in a warehouse. Portland opened new shelters in a former Greyhound bus station and an unused jail and is renting out 300 rooms at six motels in addition to the 100 pods.
Pallet, the company that makes the 64- or 100-square-foot pods, said it has provided 1,500 beds to cities and towns across the U.S. since the pandemic began.
Vannoy and Foss were terrified to stay in crowded shelters and worried about the safety of collecting used soda cans for change. Charities they’d relied on for hot lunches, free clothes and warm showers closed. At one point, Foss went a month without changing clothes. Now, they have a safe space.
“People just locked themselves in the house, I get it,” Foss said of the sudden dearth of services. “But it really made it dirty and nasty and you really had to put your own instincts for survival into high gear.”
Many localities are using federal CARES Act money to increase winter shelter options for people amid COVID-19 — and some say the solutions provide a glimpse of what would be possible with more consistent, long-term funding.
Portland is paying $1 million a month to rent the motel rooms for homeless people at high-risk of COVID complications. In Delaware, a former 192-room Sheraton Hotel purchased for $19.5 million by New Castle County for use as an emergency shelter opened last week.
“There’s something a little poetic about taking a pretty nice hotel and putting the most vulnerable individuals up in those hotels to see if we can transition…