COVID-19 poses a stark threat to homeless individuals in the Portland area.

“It’s a large population hugely at risk, and they may be less able to access health care if they do get sick,” said Travis Phillips, director of Community Development and Housing at Catholic Charities.

In the past two years, the number of people who experience chronic homelessness in Multnomah County increased 37%, with nearly 1,800 people fitting the definition, according to the most recent count.

Nationwide those who are homeless are increasingly older and sicker, making them more susceptible to the coronavirus. Those without housing often struggle to maintain basic hygiene on the streets — and thereby more easily spread the new virus. Living in tent encampments or crowded shelters makes it difficult to keep a distance from others or self-isolate if ill.

Though the virus has not yet been diagnosed widely in the local homeless community, “it’s a very, very real concern,” said Phillips.

Phillips is secretary of the board for Housing Oregon, a statewide membership organization for community development organizations, including Catholic Charities. He believes thus far public and private agencies are collaborating and responding quickly to protect this uniquely vulnerable group.

For example, two locations in Portland recently opened to take in residents from shelters that are struggling to distance beds appropriately.

The Oregon Convention Center, owned by the Metro regional government, has not held events since March 12 when Gov. Kate Brown banned large gatherings. It will hold 130 people in a northeast corner of the building. On March 19, the Charles Jordan Community Center in North Portland welcomed its first batch of homeless individuals.

Local government entities have increased motel and hotel voucher availability as a temporary housing solution and distributed more than 2,000 COVID-19 information cards to people experiencing homelessness.

Along with taking precautions and offering extra support at its drop-in center and Kenton Women’s Village, both serving the homeless, Catholic Charities' outreach team has distributed hand sanitizer, tarps and snacks to homeless camps. It also has expanded hours for the food pantry it runs out of its main office in Southeast Portland.

Phillips said agencies are looking at how spaces can adapt to ensure everyone — the homeless, kids who might normally get lunch at school, and others — receive the food they need.

“The joint response to this crisis has been heartening,” said Phillips.