As part of Matthew Bade’s work with the houseless community in Portland, he routinely tries to secure places in shelters for those in need. When he’s working with people who have physical disabilities, he said, it’s difficult.
“If you can’t get yourself down to the ground [where the sleeping mats are] and back up, or if you can’t get yourself onto and off the toilet, you can’t go into a shelter,” Bade said. “That would be people using a wheelchair—most older people. So we work with a lot of clients where we have nowhere to take them.”
It’s a common issue: A number of shelters in Multnomah County aren’t able to consistently care for houseless people with significant physical disabilities, leaving them with few places to turn for care.
“Unfortunately in shelter, our role is not caregiver,” said Shannon Troy, senior director of operations at Do Good Multnomah, a local homeless services provider. “We are not licensed practitioners, we are not nurses or doctors—it’s totally out of our scope of practice to do caregiver support. But then that leaves that disabled individual struggling every day.”
According to Bade, the lack of accessibility is not the fault of shelter staff, but rather the result of a system that has too often left shelters without the resources they need to take care of the city’s most vulnerable residents.
“[Shelters] are technically accessible—they’ll have a ramp entrance—but what they say is the staff doesn’t have the capacity to help people once they’re inside at all,” Bade said. “So if you can’t take care of yourself when you’re in there, they won’t give you a bed.”
Ravyn Drake, who has multiple sclerosis and sometimes uses a wheelchair and a cane, said she’s repeatedly seen accessibility issues at Portland-area shelters due to a lack of infrastructure in old, repurposed buildings, as well as other issues.
“If you have an emotional support animal, you get turned away,” Drake said. “If they don’t have an elevator, and you’re in a wheelchair, they’re going to find a reason to turn you away.”
The shortcomings of the region's shelter system are well-documented. As of last year, there were more than 5,000 people experiencing houselessness in the Portland area and only around 1,500 shelter beds available—a significant deficit that has grown in recent years.
But the lack of accessibility means that, for the 26 percent of unhoused people in the area who suffer from physical disabilities, shelters may not be an option at all—even as the city routinely orders sweeps of unsanctioned houseless encampments and a city commissioner has banned the city’s houselessness first response team from distributing tents and blankets.
It’s also a legal concern: Multnomah County is required by Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) not to discriminate on the basis of disability, and many of the contractors who run the county’s shelters like Transition Projects and Do Good Multnomah also have obligations to make sites accessible.
But accessibility remains a constant challenge, and the result is that some people who have physical disabilities choose not to engage with the shelter system to begin with.
Allen Hines, a wheelchair user who serves as housing access director at Community Vision, wrote in an email to the Mercury that some people would rather stay in familiar environments instead of taking a gamble on a shelter that they assume won’t take care of them.
“It may be difficult on several levels to be in a place that’s not set up for us, surrounded by sleeping people, and need to get the attention of a shelter worker to get up to use the bathroom, for instance,” Hines wrote. “There may be numerous similar instances during a single night at a shelter.”
It’s not just people with physical disabilities who sometimes find themselves unwelcome at shelters. Shelters can also be unwelcoming or accommodating for people of color, LGBTQ+ people, couples, and people with pets, mirroring broader societal challenges and demonstrating the sometimes limited utility of shelters as a means of supporting unhoused people.
Still, the accessibility issue stands out—both because the county must ensure that its facilities are accessible and because the number of houseless Portlanders who need physical assistance is only likely to rise in the coming years as the houseless population ages alongside the general population.
“I think we need to understand that this train is barreling down the track,” Scott Kerman, executive director at Blanchet House, said. “There’s no question that we are facing an aging houseless community, and so we’re going to need both facilities and staff who are trained to work with people with disabilities and seniors and everything that goes with it.”
People who work with the city’s houseless community broadly agreed that government entities need to substantially increase their spending on housing and social services as a whole, while also dedicating funds to address specific accessibility issues in the shelter system.
“Every location that houses our houseless community members needs to have nurses or some kind of medical care that comes in and checks on folks,” Troy said.
For now, however, there are more questions than answers about the city’s intentions. Hines wrote that he’s still waiting to hear how the city plans to meet the needs of people with disabilities at the mass encampments it’s planning to open at locations throughout the city, or whether those encampments will simply “magnify the issues we’re seeing in smaller shelters.”
Sandra Comstock, executive director of Hygiene4All, said her experience working at C3PO, a trio of outdoor shelters created by the city, county, and a group of nonprofit organizations during the pandemic, has given her pause regarding the mass encampment plan.
Comstock said that the gravel lots at C3PO sites were difficult for people who were not steady walkers to navigate and that the showers delivered to the sites were not wheelchair accessible.
“In general, I’m not impressed with city and county capacity to plan for things like disabilities and accommodations,” Comstock said. “Oftentimes, those requests are ignored or [treated] like it’s some kind of frill as opposed to something you absolutely have to have.”
The accessibility challenges aren’t contained to the shelter system, either. Hines noted a systemic lack of accessible and affordable housing has both pushed people with physical disabilities into houselessness and made it that much more difficult for them to exit it.
“The status quo of our society is inaccessible for people with disabilities, and that absolutely must change,” Hines wrote. “In the meantime, we need more individualized supports and programming.”