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The storm is extra challenging for people without housing in cities unused to snow

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The winter storm that has closed roads and knocked out power across much of the country is particularly hard on the West Coast, testing people in places not used to snow and freezing temperatures. It can be dangerous, even deadly for people who don't have permanent housing or live in tents and vehicles in places like Portland, Ore., which has seen nearly a foot of snow. Oregon Public Broadcasting's Conrad Wilson reports.

CONRAD WILSON, BYLINE: You spent the night out here.

REBECCA MARTELL: Yeah.

WILSON: Why was that?

MARTELL: That's where I live.

WILSON: That's where you live. What's your name?

Rebecca Martell has been without a house for the past decade. And for the last several years, she's lived in almost the same spot along a busy road in southeast Portland, where she's pitched a tent and parked her white van.

MARTELL: It was the cost of living that I couldn't find a place at first. And my daughter is out here, and she'll keep in contact with me as long as I'm out here better than she does if I'm in a home. So I stay out here. I'm trying to get her off the streets.

WILSON: For the past two days, temperatures have barely nudged above freezing. Portland is covered in snow, and the streets and sidewalks have been caked in ice. The city is neither accustomed to nor well-prepared for this kind of winter weather that took the region by surprise. And like many cities along the West Coast, Portland has a dramatic housing shortage and a growing population without stable housing. That includes more than 5,000 people living outside.

RACHEL PEARL: In these times, we really all need to be paying attention to each other and looking out for each other.

WILSON: Rachel Pearl is deputy director of the Multnomah County Department of Human Services. The county includes the city of Portland. Pearl's team is helping coordinate emergency warming shelters, including more than 700 beds, which she says were a challenge for staff and volunteers to get up and running amid the nearly 11 inches of snow.

PEARL: We definitely didn't anticipate the accumulation of snow.

WILSON: The Multnomah County Medical Examiner's Office is investigating one person's death that may have been caused by hypothermia. Back on the street, 51-year-old Rebecca Martell says she's thought about going to one of the city's emergency shelters.

MARTELL: Last night is when I started thinking about it, you know? But we got really warm this morning, so we're doing OK.

WILSON: She was just released from the hospital after she said she was physically attacked. She was in her van with her boyfriend when the temperatures started to drop this week and the snow began to fall.

Do you guys need anything?

MARTELL: Actually, we're OK. We got everything - water...

WILSON: All right.

MARTELL: ...Clothing. We have everything.

WILSON: Martell says people dropped off blankets, socks, sweaters and other supplies. As I was leaving, a neighbor who had just made soup walked up to see if Martell was hungry. That's exactly the type of assistance local officials are hoping housed neighbors can provide. Temperatures are expected to warm up slightly tomorrow, but forecasts call for more cold weather and even snow, meaning more challenges for people living on Portland's streets. For NPR News, I'm Conrad Wilson in Portland, Ore.

(SOUNDBITE OF ED SHEERAN SONG, "THE JOKER AND THE QUEEN (FEAT. TAYLOR SWIFT)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Conrad Wilson / OPB