News

Oregonian: 38,000 in Portland area were homeless at some point in 2017, study finds
Author: Elliot Njus
Posted: August 20, 2019

To read the original story, visit the Oregonian.

 An estimated 38,000 people in Multnomah, Washington and Clackamas counties experienced homelessness at some point in 2017, according a new Portland State University study, and a fix could cost billions.
 

The study, the first of its kind, takes a regional and more expansive view of homelessness than the single-night tallies required by the federal government, which each county conducts separately. The counties, in their canvasses of shelters, camps and vehicles, found a combined 5,700 people without permanent housing.

The Portland State study uses those counts as a starting point. But it also attempts to account for people who experience homelessness off and on, as well as families who double-up with friends or family because of economic hardship, using data from public school districts.

The federally mandated Point in Time count provides a snapshot of one night of homelessness in counties across the country. It has traditionally been used to evaluate how to distribute federal, state and local money and other resources. However, officials always warn that the count is likely undercounting how many people actually experience homelessness.

The Point in Time results released last month illustrate the discrepancy -- in 2017, Multnomah County found that more people were in shelters than living on the street. But that number had flipped by 2019, with vastly more people living in tents, cars or other places unfit for human habitation than under a roof.

This study’s resulting 38,000 figure could provide policymakers another, more realistic lens through which to examine their efforts to address homelessness than the point-in-time numbers, said Marisa A. Zapata, the lead author of the study.

“When people ask why we’re not solving the problem, it’s because they’re looking at a very small portion of the population,” Zapata said. “Our hope is by putting out a more realistic number, we can start to have a discussion of the actual number of people who need people.”

The estimate also allowed researchers to estimate what they say the cost of addressing homelessness across the region would be, and price tag came to a staggering $2.6 billion to $4.1 billion over 10 years.

That includes the cost to build new affordable housing, subsidize rents and offer employment services, with additional costs assigned to households that require support services because of disability, addiction or other medical needs. It does not include what it would cost to prevent people from becoming homelessness.

The new estimate far dwarfs what local governments have allocated for homeless services. Portland and Multnomah County have budgeted $70 million combined for the Joint Office of Homeless Services -- the most in the metro area. But both Mayor Ted Wheeler and Chair Deborah Kafoury have said that even by cutting into other departments, they can not set aside enough to fully deal with the crisis.

Both have said they are interested in proposing a new funding stream -- a tax or levy or other mechanism -- that would generate money just for homeless services since the federal government has not indicated it would ramp up spending and the state government’s dollars mostly go toward affordable housing projects.

The figure includes some amount of cost that’s already being paid. It doesn’t, for example, account for money already being spent through existing housing assistance or affordable housing construction programs. The needed spending would also be offset by the $653 million affordable housing bond approved by voters within the Metro regional government’s boundaries, and the city of Portland’s $258 million housing bond.

The $4.1 million represents the cost to stabilize or house people who are currently homeless, but it doesn’t address the structural underpinnings that could lead more people to fall into homelessness, which span housing affordability, health care policy and the criminal justice system.

“This can feel like a really big number in terms of cost over 10 years, but we’re going to have to keep paying it until we look at structural policy solutions,” Zapata said.

The study also found that 107,000 households were at risk of homelessness across the three metro-area counties because they’re relatively low-income and spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing, which leaves little room for saving or unexpected expenses.

The cost of providing universal housing vouchers to those households could cost $11 billion to $21 billion over 10 years.

That cost similarly doesn’t account for money already spent on housing assistance. Today, however, rent assistance is far from universal. Only one in four households that qualify for rent subsidies based on income actually receive them.