Is a full census of homelessness plausible or useful?
Elected officials in the Portland area have long pushed for improving data collection on homelessness.
Amid an ongoing homeless crisis and with hundreds of millions of local and federal dollars to address the issue now flowing to local governments, agencies need more data and better data management tools to best deliver resources, the argument goes.
But counting every homeless person in the region is considered, by some, to be impossible.
Leaders of Portland and Multnomah County's Joint Office of Homeless Services recently responded to questions from county commissioners about whether the department aims to take data on every homeless person living in the county or within specific homeless populations.
The discussion was part of a Tuesday, May 24, hearing on the department's next proposed budget.
While there are existing local databases with person-level data on homelessness, and the county is in the early stages of implementing another tool to better identify homeless people, the joint office doesn't intend to create a full census of homelessness, said Shannon Singleton, interim director of the joint office.
The discussion was brief — five minutes out of a more than two-and-a-half-hour meeting. But it shows a contrast in how elected officials and joint office leadership view the plausibility of conducting a full census of homelessness. And perhaps more importantly, how useful such data would be.
Commissioner Lori Stegmann asked Singleton whether the joint office has data on or plans to count the number of homeless people living in RVs and cars.
"That's just not something that we currently track," Singleton said. "Like any other data point, frankly, for homelessness, it's always going to be a point in time and not a full census."
Some people living in vehicles are counted in the federally mandated point in time count, Singleton said. Recently released numbers from the county's first point in time count since 2019 show homelessness has spiked since the beginning of the pandemic. Such counts are widely understood to undercount the number of homeless people living in an area. Officials see them as snapshots, not a whole pictures, of homelessness.
Singleton added that implementing the Built For Zero initiative will help count people living in vehicles. The county currently is working with the nonprofit Community Solutions to advance the initiative, which seeks to help local governments reach functionally zero chronic homelessness by creating a real-time, by-name list of homeless people to better deliver services.
The focus population of the county's Build For Zero work initially will be adults experiencing chronic homelessness, which the federal government defines as people who have experienced homelessness for at least a year — or repeatedly over the last three years — while living with a disability. Officials say focusing on that population first will allow them to create an effective strategy within the initiative, which it can then apply to other homeless populations.
Speaking metaphorically, Singleton said, "It's also important just to note that we don't know everyone and everything about everyone who has diabetes, for example, but we know how to treat it. And we may not know everyone and everything about them around homelessness but we do know how to treat it. It's really about having lots of options to meet the person's need."
Stegmann agreed, saying, "If we can holistically address the issue, then all of the numbers should decrease."
Minutes later, Commissioner Sharon Meieran, who has been one of the most vocal advocates of improving homeless data, asked for more information on the topic. Meieran is headed to a runoff election for county chair in November.
During her campaign, Meieran has criticized the joint office for not doing more to collect, manage and report homeless data.
Officials should conduct a "'by name count' to understand not only how many people are living unsheltered, but who they are, where they are, and what they need," reads Meieran's campaign website.
Meieran asked Singleton, "Is there anything in the budget that is expanding on what we have now to reach a whole census? Obviously, we'll never have completely accurate, but closer."
Meieran said she was struck by Singleton's analogy to diabetes treatment, saying doctors understand the specific needs of everyone they're treating for diabetes.
"They have to know their numbers so that they can deploy their resources effectively," said Meieran, who is an emergency room physician. "It seems like the analogy itself that you made suggests that we need to be knowing who's out there, the real universe."
"I don't think that's true, commissioner," Singleton replied. "As the provider, I know the universe of need coming to me, just like a doctor knows the universe of need coming to them. What we don't know is the universe of need outside of my office or me as a provider.
"Homelessness is not a stagnant population," Singleton continued, adding that people flow in and out of homeless constantly. "So the idea that we will ever know a full census of who is experiencing homelessness is just not realistic."
The way to make progress on homelessness is to have multiple types of shelter options, conduct street outreach, support housing placements and retention, and invest in homelessness prevention, Singleton said.
She also noted two systems the joint office and service providers use to track and share person-level data about people receiving homeless services. The systems help the joint office meet requirements to receive federal funding for housing and homelessness.
One is the county's coordinated entry system, which includes by-name lists of homeless adults, families and veterans who seek services to streamline housing opportunities and other resources.
Another is the Homeless Management Information System, which similarly records information about services providers' clients who are homeless or at risk of being homeless. Portland and county officials recently agreed to transition the administration of the local HMIS system to the county from the Portland Housing Bureau. County officials say the transition will allow them to improve the system and access more of its client-level data rather than aggregated data only.
The discussion ended with Meieran saying she would like to continue the conversation.
Editor's note: This story has been updated to clarify the county's initial focus of the Built For Zero initiative.
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