Portland State and county officials conduct regional homeless count
Author: By Denis Theriault, Joint Office of Homeless Services
Posted: January 28, 2019

Last week, hundreds of outreach workers, service providers and volunteers coordinated by Portland State University and the Joint Office of Homeless Services conducted Multnomah County’s most ambitious Point in Time Count of homelessness yet.

Every day and night through, they worked to reach as many neighbors experiencing homelessness as possible, asking them where they slept the night of Jan. 23: In a shelter? Transitional housing? Or somewhere without any shelter at all?

Surveyors will also collected vital demographic data meant to tell us more about who is experiencing homelessness — for example, their age, race and ethnicity, length of homelessness, whether they are disabled, and whether they are veterans or have experienced domestic violence. 

“The count doesn’t provide every answer: It doesn’t tell us why someone became homeless or what it will take to help any particular person end their homelessness,” said Marc Jolin, director of the Joint Office of Homeless Services, which is funded by the City of Portland and Multnomah County. “But it’s a critical tool for helping us understand the current level and nature of the need in our community. It’s vital data that helps guide our community’s investments in ending homelessness.” 

Record number of participants this year

This year, a record number of people worked to survey people experiencing homelessness — part of an ongoing effort, year after year, to improve the quality of the count by making it as comprehensive as possible. 

More than 130 outreach workers from 34 outreach teams, representing 27 agencies, went out with surveys in hand to campsites from the Columbia Gorge to Forest Park, and from the Columbia River south to Johnson Creek. Partner governments and agencies such as Metro, Portland Parks and Recreation Rangers, the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office and the City of Gresham were also a part of the effort.

At the same time, an unprecedented number of public volunteers — 136 — joined service providers at nearly 89 day centers, meal sites, shelters and other locations, including schools, libraries, places of worship and culturally specific providers, to administer surveys and collect responses. 

This year, coordination of the count was led by the Portland State's Regional Research Institute through a contract with the Joint Office of Homeless Services.

The PSU group has added team leaders across different geographic areas of the county, including people with real-life experiences, to guide the work. They’ve also worked to increase outreach opportunities in east Multnomah County to better capture population shifts among people experiencing homelessness.

Federally required Count doesn’t tell the whole story

Federal housing agencies require the Point in Time Count and prescribe the date of the count. While the outcome of the count does not affect funding levels, conducting an accurate tally helps ensure our community remains eligible for more than $25 million in federal funding for housing and homelessness services.

The count also provides a snapshot of how the most vulnerable people in our community are faring in a difficult housing market and economy, and helps guide policy decisions and budget allocations.

But organizers and advocates also note the count has limits and that its results can be misunderstood, in part because of the information the count isn’t able to provide.

It doesn’t offer data on how many people come in and out of homelessness over the course of a year. It doesn’t assess why people become homeless or offer answers on the barriers that prevent people from leaving homelessness. It doesn’t show our progress helping people back into housing.

And because of federal rules for the count, it also doesn’t count people who are doubled up, living temporarily with friends, loved ones or others. Culturally specific providers tell us that people of color are disproportionately represented in this population.

On the night of the 2017 Count, 4,177 people were tallied experiencing homelessness. But that was just one night. Every day, people leave homelessness, even as high housing prices push different neighbors onto our streets.

A report last year by consulting firm ECONorthwest found 56,000 households at risk of homelessness throughout the three-county Portland metro region on any given night. That finding reflects the challenges of the region’s housing market, where rental costs have soared faster than incomes, putting a rising number of neighbors at risk of losing their housing.

In the 2017-18 fiscal year, more than 30,000 people received some level of services from partners in A Home for Everyone, our community’s multi-jurisdictional initiative and strategy for ending homelessness. That same year, more than 8,500 people spent a night in shelter, double the number four years before. And nearly 6,000 people were housed out of homelessness, also nearly double the number from four years earlier.

And yet, as fast as our housing placement and outreach workers are helping people off the streets and out of our shelters, high housing costs and stagnant wages for low-income residents are still pushing individuals and families onto our streets even faster.