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Those who serve Jefferson County's homeless seek more demographic information

 - Pat Abernathy, left, runs homeless programs in Madras, and Tony Mitchell, executive director of Jefferson County Faith Based Network, say no single face tells the full story of homelessness in the county. They want more information to learn how to better serve their clients and help them out of their situation.

We see them holding signs on the streets. We see their camps along the creek. But who are they? And how many?

That guy sleeping on the stone ledge below the "Welcome to Madras" sign Sept. 9? He's 55 years old. He's been homeless about 20 years. He says it's lonely, but a lot of nice people help him out.

He's a skilled carpenter and "a proud White Buffalo!" he says. He played sports at Madras High. You might have gone to school with him.

He's from Warm Springs, but he stays in Madras where he can buy alcohol. By his own admission, he drinks too much.

"The reason they're homeless is immaterial to us," says Pat Abernathy, who runs extreme weather homeless shelters for the homeless in Madras. "We're motivated by love."

Abernathy says churches in the area, now the Faith Based Network, got together to help the homeless in the community.

"They just couldn't stand to see these homeless suffering," says Abernathy. "It was the love of God that compelled them to do it."

Yet the details of each story matter to FBN's new executive director, Tony Mitchell.

"There is an opportunity to get at the root of things and help homeless people," says Mitchell.

Mitchell and Abernathy and their colleagues in Central Oregon insist there is no one face of homelessness in our community.

Every year, the Homeless Leadership Coalition counts heads and tries to learn more about people living without homes in Central Oregon. The information helps when applying for grants and helps decide which programs can help the most.

The Point In-Time Count asks the question: Where did you sleep the night of Jan. 20, 2021? They counted people in shelters, in transitional housing, "couch surfing" with family of friends, camping, sleeping in cars, in RVs without full hookup, or other places not meant for housing like sheds or storage units.

The Central Oregon count found:

-- 1,099 total homeless, a 13% increase

-- 989 were adults, 18 years and older, a 63% increase

-- 175 were ages 18 to 24, a 146% increase

-- 18 were unaccompanied children younger than 18, a 200% increase

-- 89 were veterans, a 50% increase

FBN housed nine people in its shelter the night of Jan. 20, but that number does not adequately describe the homeless population in Jefferson County.

Over the season, counting winter and summer, Mitchell says the agency served:

-- 95 to 100 unique individuals

-- 15 to 20 were women

-- 40 to 45 were natives

-- 2 family groups

-- 5 to 7 couples

Homeless youth live in Jefferson County, but FBN does not house unaccompanied youth in their shelters for liability reasons.

The HLC says economic reasons top the causes people report for being homeless.

Mitchell says personal reasons follow close behind, including divorce, in-home conflict, and substance abuse.

Some are homeless because of criminal history or legal housing issues, such as eviction.

Mitchell and Abernathy say it's rough out there.

"They rob and steal from each other," says Abernathy. "Their tent's been knocked over."

"Their limited possessions have been stolen or vandalized," says Mitchell.

Abernathy says people find relative safety in their cars, in the wild land areas, or behind buildings.

"They used to go out to the fairgrounds," says Abernathy. "They would burn fencing for firewood and destroy the bathrooms."

Fair administration told Abernathy the grounds had zero vandalism the year FBN opened its winter warming shelter.

"Madras is much safer at night because they're not out wondering the streets," says Abernathy.

The survey results don't surprise anybody.

The surprises come in one-on-one conversations with people who visit the shelter.

"A guy who had a house and a car and a beautiful wife," recalls Abernathy. "His wife died, and he fell into a bottle. Grief overcame him and he lost everything. He's been on the streets for 12-15 years."

Mitchell tells about the guy who once played chess against Grandmaster Bobby Fischer.

"I would say a high percentage of our unhoused people may have drug or alcohol issues. But it's like a chicken and egg thing," says Mitchell, "whether the drug and alcohol issues drove them to homelessness, or whether the despair or the loss of hope once they were homeless drove them to drugs or alcohol."

Going forward, Mitchell plans to ask more questions when they take people in for services. He wants to get a clearer picture of who their clients are and how they can serve them better.

The mission began to rescue people from the cold.

Mitchell wants to "move the needle" to help people out of their situation.

"It's not enough for me to wave goodbye in March," says Mitchell, "and say, 'See you in November.'"

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