Sheltering in place: Inside a Portland homeless camp built during the coronavirus pandemic (Video) – OregonLive

Sheltering in place: Inside a Portland homeless camp built during the coronavirus pandemic (Video)  OregonLive

As COVID-19 arrived in the U.S., officials across the country, including Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, issued stay-home orders. Some with homes rushed to grocery stores, stocking up on canned food, flour for baking, toilet paper and hand sanitizer. If they still had jobs, they prepared to work from home, juggling childcare, making rent, all while managing the anxiety of an unprecedented health crisis.

For the more than 4,000 homeless people in Multnomah County, the mid-March stay-home order prompted unique anxieties. Not afforded the luxury of worrying as much about the virus’ spread, they focused their attention on securing basic needs with the dwindling of resources they’d relied on before — an open Starbucks to use the bathroom and wash their hands, a community kitchen offering a meal, community centers with computers and Wi-Fi, a place to charge a cellphone. What does it mean to shelter-in-place, when that place is your tent on the street and nearly all your sources of support are shuttered?

In this short film, Raven Drake, 36, a homeless veteran who left her job and home in the Midwest for a freer life in Portland, says it has meant not only keeping herself and her immunocompromised partner safe but figuring out a way to keep the greater homeless community safe as well.

“On a normal day being homeless, you have to schedule your life around the resources you want to use,” she said. “You schedule breakfast, you schedule lunch, you schedule a time to take a shower — all these things are built into your daily schedule.” Suddenly when these things aren’t available to a person experiencing homelessness, staying safe and staying healthy becomes a lot harder.

Raven lives in a tent in a grassy area off the side of Interstate 5 near downtown Portland. Every day she wakes up around 5am and takes the MAX train into the city, to her job at Street Roots, an organization that publishes newspapers and advocates for the homeless. The first person to arrive at the office these days, since most people are working from home, she brews a pot of coffee. For her, coming into the office is the only way to accomplish her work. And it means she can wash her hands, have coffee and change her clothes before digging into email and starting her sometimes 12- to 14-hour day.

Raven took the lead in organizing and distributing supplies among the homeless community in early March as COVID-19 hit Oregon. Mark Graves

When the virus first came to Portland, Raven spent money she made selling Street Roots papers on hand sanitizer and soap, passing out supplies and setting up a medical tent to tend to people who were sick, using the medical training she had received in the Navy. As a former medic who served three combat tours in Iraq, she’s not only taken on more responsibility at Street Roots, but has also taken on the duties of medical coordinator at three city-sanctioned homeless camps that have been built in vacant lots in Portland. Two of the camps are on Water Avenue, near the east end of the Hawthorne Bridge, and another in Old Town.

One specializes in serving people of color. Another, which Raven calls her “baby,” has supports designed for the spectrum of the LGBTQ population in need of shelter. The goal of the camps is to support those most vulnerable and at risk of getting sick.

The camps offer a sense of security to those sheltered there: a 10′ x 10′ platform for their tent and belongings, hand-washing stations, showers, bathrooms, a medical tent, and three meals a day. The camp featured in the film, the Q (queer) camp, is run on a village model with weekly meetings, agendas and collaborative tasks for all the residents.

Raven checks in at the camps frequently. She usually walks there and then winds her way through security, pulling up her mask and greeting the residents and volunteers with the distant hellos we’ve all gotten used to during the pandemic. The marked absence of a hug or a handshake.

She checks on one woman’s swollen ankle, tells another she’s seen a cute shirt in a pile of donated clothes that would look good on her. Camp staffers call for her help in getting the camp portable shower in working order.

“Things are tough, but we have very resilient people out here,” she says. “And so we just keep surviving.”

Raven Drake stands at the entryway to the Street Roots office in downtown Portland. Street Roots is a homeless advocacy organization that prints newspapers. Homeless herself, Raven has been part of a community effort to build three temporary shelter-in-place camps during the coronavirus pandemic for the homeless. “It’s been hard surviving out there. Things are tough.”Brooke Herbert/The Oregonian

As the country and state begin gradually re-opening, Raven, community partners such as JOIN, and residents of the camps wonder what will happen to the temporary homes and villages they’ve built. JOIN’s Victory LaFara, the program coordinator for the camps said the camps haven’t had any reported cases of COVID-19. They’re hopeful, but long-term options for the camps “largely depends on what funding can be secured,” they said. There’s a lot to be decided.

One resident, Starburst says, “Taking this place away from us after COVID-19, it’ll make the streets go back to where they were again.”

— Brooke Herbert, aherbert@oregonian.com, @abrookeherbert