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Homeless detection efforts have improved in recent years, helping combat the problem locally

HOLLY SCHOLZ - The Regeneration House emergency men's shelter (pictured above) and Redemption House, which provides shelter for women and children, have helped some homeless people, but the community still lacks a place for families to stay together or a place for homeless teens to go.

Central Oregon homeless are trending up and while data is not yet compiled for individual counties, the expectation is numbers are also increasing in Crook County.

The Homeless Leadership Coalition and other local community leaders gathered Friday morning at Crook County Library to go over recently released data from the 2019 Point in Time Count.

"It is one night. It is one point in time," said Vicky Ryan, who serves as Crook County's Emergency Preparedness Coordinator.

She explained that the event, held locally on Jan. 23, is an annual homeless count effort mandated by HUD (U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development). Communities are asked to collect self-reported data on chronic homeless, which includes people who live in emergency shelters, transitional housing or motels as well as those who live any place not meant for human habitation, including RVs that lack water and sewer hookups, heating and the ability to cook.

Regionally, the Homeless Leadership Coalition takes the requirement a step further and conducts surveys two days beyond the initial Point in Time Count day. "We had a bigger opportunity to get to more people and have more people self-reporting," Ryan said, adding that volunteers looked for people in precariously housed situations as well as those who are couch surfing. "I think we got a much more accurate count."

The Central Oregon-wide data collected during the 2019 count found 880 homeless people total, a 12 percent increase from 2018. That upward trend could mean that the region has more homeless people, although coalition members note that the increase could also be attributed to better detection.

Of the 880, 30 percent are categorized as sheltered, or living in emergency shelters, transitional housing or motels funded by vouchers. The remaining 70 percent are considered unsheltered, which includes anyone living on the streets, in camps or any other place not intended to human habitation.

Further breakdown of the numbers revealed that veteran homelessness is up 3 percent across Central Oregon and 19 percent more children 18 and younger were counted as homeless. Unaccompanied children 18 and younger increased by 33 percent.

Meanwhile, some subcategories of homelessness saw decreases, including those with serious mental illness (down 85 percent) and those with substance abuse issues (down 74 percent). Those who attended the meeting Friday debated whether or not the decreases could be attributed to a decline homelessness because of those conditions, or an increased reluctance to self-report among substance abusers or mentally ill people. While nothing was concretely concluded, arguments seemed to suggest both situations could be occurring simultaneously.

A relatively new issue that has affected the homeless situation in Crook County is data center construction. Because workers have occupied all of the available motel rooms and RV sites, people no longer have those options to turn to if they lose their home.

"It's great for our economy," Ryan said of the surge in construction workers, "but it has really done a turn on where the homeless are staying."

The Point in Time Count data tracks the primary causes for homelessness and in 2019, the top cause is economics. People either struggle to pay their rent or lose their job, and in a more recent development, some have the property they are renting sold from under them.

"We have had a lot of that over the last couple of years," Ryan remarked.

In addition, some people have lost their home because a mobile home park is closing or is in the process of upgrading, and even though the housing crash happened nearly a decade ago, people are still losing their homes to foreclosure.

"It hasn't gotten much better for a lot of folks (since the recession)," Ryan said, adding that high home prices have made it difficult for many to afford a new house.

Mike Wilson, board president of Redemption House Ministries, spoke at the Friday session as well, highlighting what the community still lacks in homeless shelter options. Since Redemption House operates a men-only shelter and another one intended for women and children, families with a father, mother and children will not utilize their shelters.

"That's when they are happier to spend the night in a car than they are to break up the family," he said. "I find that really, really sad."

Wilson added that no homeless shelter exists locally for teens who have either run away from home or have been kicked out, or are without a home for other reasons.

"We can't take minors," he said.

Going forward, the coalition will continue to analyze the data, breaking it down by county and community, and will use it to determine where efforts are working and where the group needs to work harder.

"It is really important for us to watch the trends," Ryan said.

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