Georginna, 68, waits in line for a lunch from the Catholic Charities of Oregon food pantry Oct. 23 after visiting the nonprofit’s drop-in center. The pandemic closed many public spaces with important amenities. “It’s been big-time difficult,” she said. (Katie Scott/Catholic Charities)
Georginna, 68, waits in line for a lunch from the Catholic Charities of Oregon food pantry Oct. 23 after visiting the nonprofit’s drop-in center. The pandemic closed many public spaces with important amenities. “It’s been big-time difficult,” she said. (Katie Scott/Catholic Charities)
A pickup truck is home for Georginna, a retired factory worker who now struggles to live off her minimal Social Security benefits. The vehicle provides safety, mobility and some warmth but not much else. Like other homeless individuals, the 68-year-old relies on libraries and community centers for a shower, drinking water, protection from extreme weather, and access to a computer so she can look for a job.

The pandemic essentially shuttered these public spaces.

“It’s been big-time difficult,” said Georginna, standing near Catholic Charities of Oregon’s drop-in center for homeless women on a recent afternoon. She began coming to the Southeast Portland site four months ago, and it’s made life a bit easier.

Open Monday through Friday, the center offers a washer and dryer, phone and computer, showers, a mailing address and snacks. Staff help clients navigate unemployment forms and job applications and connect them with services. Catholic Charities’ food pantry, which has expanded operations during the pandemic, is around the corner.

“I’m very grateful for all this,” Georginna said, the evidence of a smile appearing under her mask.

Drop-in sites always provide key services, but with so many community amenities closed, “they’re more important than ever,” said Marc Jolin, director of Multnomah County’s Joint Office of Homeless Services. “Along with offering hygiene, a meal, a restroom, they are a place where people can get accurate COVID-19 information and learn where to get other assistance. They are points of entry into a system of care and they are essential right now.”

Catholic Charities’ drop-in center may grow more crucial this winter if homelessness increases and COVID-19 cases continue to mount.

“All signs and science say the numbers are going to spike,” said Jennifer Lucena, homeless services manager for Catholic Charities.

As of Oct. 27, there’d been 71 cases of the coronavirus among the homeless in Multnomah County. Though these numbers are relatively low, those who work in homeless outreach remain concerned about the recent increase in the general population and what that means for the unsheltered. Last month Oregon twice broke its own record for the most cases reported in one day. From Oct. 5-11, the state had the highest weekly total since the pandemic began.

“We expect that as the pandemic continues and cases increase, there probably are going to be more folks experiencing homelessness because they can’t pay rent,” Lucena said. This summer, 2.6 times more Oregonians were out of work compared to last year. Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler’s office says the pandemic already has forced more people onto the streets.

To mitigate the likelihood of an outbreak in the homeless community, the city of Portland reduced the number of homeless campsites it dismantles. This approach may have contributed to the more visible presence of homeless individuals since March.

Georginna believes it’s not just that the camps weren’t moved. “I’ve noticed a lot more people on the streets than there were before,” she said.

Over the past few months, homeless individuals have faced not only the added stress of the pandemic, but also hazardous levels of smoke and the emotional repercussions of the protests and the deaths of Black individuals killed in police custody, said Lucena. African Americans are disproportionately represented in Portland’s chronically homeless population.

“We are all experiencing stress from these things, but the homeless even more so,” Lucena said. The drop-in center addresses basic needs, but staff have another goal, too: “We are a relationship-centered program, and we want to be here as they deal with all these layers, to help them feel welcome and supported.”

When the smoke from Oregon’s fires was especially bad, the center had to close briefly. But the outreach didn’t stop. Staff donned special protective gear and went out on the streets to distribute masks and water.

Lucena said Catholic Charities’ regular street outreach has been crucial throughout the pandemic. “It’s important for us to meet people where they are,” she said. That means understanding women’s emotional and psychological barriers but also being physically where they are located.

Like all services, the drop-in center has modified its process for safety reasons. Staff take turns on the front lines, so they can minimize risk and recharge. Only one guest uses amenities at a time, and coffee, food and hygiene items are handed out at the door.

Estelle, 33, stopped by recently for feminine hygiene products. “They provide essentials here and also good vibes,” she said.

Whatever the winter brings, said Lucena, the center will be there for the women. “At Catholic Charities we ramp into high gear for times like this; it’s what we do.”