Preble Street Resource Center, Portland
The Portland Street courtyard outside the Preble Street Resource Center will be fenced in under a plan to convert the building to a 40-bed shelter. (Portland Phoenix file/Colin Ellis)
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City Manager Jon Jennings announced Portland is working with local shelters and clinics to ensure services would remain open after a city employee contracted coronavirus last week. 

But that doesn’t mean the services won’t face an uphill battle.

Joseph Conroy, senior director of food programs and facilities at the Preble Street Resource Center, said “things are going fast” for the center, and information they get changes almost hourly.

“The challenge for me, besides assessing what happens next, is meeting people’s basic needs and keeping them safe,” Conroy said.

Joseph Conroy, senior director of food programs and facilities at Preble Street Resource Center in Portland, said the center can adapt to the impact of coronavirus, but it needs the continued support of volunteers. (Portland Phoenix/Colin Ellis)

For now, Conroy said the center will continue to operate as it has been, providing three meals a day at three sites across the city. However, he anticipates the center’s volunteer base will take a hit since school groups and retired citizens make up a significant portion of volunteers. He said the support remains solid for now, but he does expect it to drop.

“Hopefully others will step up,” Conroy said.

Preble Street, which was founded in 1975 as a center for homeless and low-income residents, is a fixture of the Portland service scene. It operates every day, serving 500 people daily. Each day there are approximately 60 volunteers at the three city sites, but there is a volunteer base of close to 10,000 people.

“How we provide that without support is a challenge,” Conroy said.

He said Preble Street knows it may have to change its model of operation to comply with local, state and federal guidelines during the pandemic. That could mean moving the foodservice offsite or only allowing a few people into the center at a time. Those decisions will depend on whatever recommendations come down from government officials.

“We fully expect to be ready,” Conroy said.

He said all programs at Preble Street are well stocked, and employees and volunteers are stepping up efforts to ensure communal surfaces are sanitized, hand sanitizer is readily available, public information and education are on display throughout the center, and utensils are kept away from common areas.

Doctors will also be walking through the center to offer guidance on how to optimize the environment. He said he expects some changes to be recommended, but the center has already anticipated several things it will have to do as the virus continues to spread.

“We have the resources we need,” he said, to easily modify operations to ensure there aren’t too many people in one place, while still offering the same level of services.

However, he said the most important thing is to ensure those necessary services do remain in place. More than anything, it’s important to make sure those who need it can still get food.

“When you don’t have a home, it’s a difficult situation,” he said.

So far, Conroy said he hasn’t heard much from clients about fear of the virus.

“When you struggle with homelessness, all this is just one more thing for them,” he said.

Throughout all this, though, Conroy said Preble Street is still asking its volunteers to come in and lend a hand.

“We have the food we need; we have the resources we need to meet this challenge,” he said. “The real challenge is balancing those needs and keeping people safe.” 

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