An unscientific but federally mandated survey suggests both good news and bad news regarding the metro-are homeless: The number of unsheltered homeless likely rose by 22% since 2017. But the total number of homeless — not just the unsheltered, who live on the street — likely dropped by 4% during that same period.
The survey — officially known as the Point in Time homeless count — is required by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for local social service agencies to qualify for federal funding. Although many jurisdictions conduct the survey every year, Multnomah County does it every two years.
The outcomes could be an illusion. County officials said this year's survey was the most extensive ever, which may have affected the results.
The 2019 survey involved 130 staff members from 30 organizations and 140 volunteers. Despite that, city and county officials said it only represents a ballpark estimate of the number of homeless, with homeless youth and other demographics likely being underrepresented.
The survey was released at a Thursday, Aug. 1,? press conference held by the city-county Joint Office of Homeless Services. Director Marc Jolin said the reduction in the total homeless figures was especially significant because of the ongoing affordable housing crisis and continuing lack of social services for those with mental health conditions, addiction disorders, chronic illnesses, and physical disabilities.
Officials acknowledge the Point in Time survey is an estimate.
"Every count is necessarily an undercount because it's impossible to find every person on a given night who's experiencing homelessness, especially folks who are camping in placing and sleeping in places that are out of the way," Denis Theriault, spokesman for the joint office, told Oregon Public Broadcasting.
The count was conducted on the night of Jan. 23, 2019. The previous one was undertaken around the same time two years ago.
According to the survey, the increase in the unsheltered count was driven by a significant jump — 479 people, or 37% — in the number of people considered chronically homeless. That means they have at least one disabling condition and have been homeless for at least a year. The survey found that roughly two-thirds of those counted as being without shelter fit that description.
At the same time, the survey found that the overall decrease reflected reductions in groups Portland and Multnomah County have prioritized for services. Among women, the count fell by 10%. The number of people counted in families with children fell by more than half.
But, according to the survey, the percent of African Americans and Native Americans experiencing homelessness increased since 2017, and both groups are overrepresented compared to their percentages of the general population.
Portland and Multnomah County officials praised recent efforts to reduce homelessness for helping to reduce the total number of homeless people. The city and county are together contributing around $70 million to the Joint Office of Homeless Services.
Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler said the likely decrease in the total number of homeless validates the strategy of focusing investments on specific populations, like women and families with children, which appears to have declined over the past two years.
"We've proven that focused, aggressive investments in support services can generate positive outcomes for thousands of people in our community who would otherwise be homeless. That success is reflected in the strides we've made helping families and women," Wheeler said.
Multnomah County Commissioner Deborah Kafoury agreed, saying that the chronically homeless are now a focus of the joint office.
"Too many of our neighbors with disabilities are having to live on our streets. Disability checks and other fixed incomes just can't cover rising rents, and this is exactly why we are prioritizing not just affordable housing, but the type of affordable housing that comes with a case-worker for people to stay housed. We know it works and we need to do a lot more of it," Kafoury said.
Both Wheeler and Kafoury also said the funding was preventing more than 12,000 people from becoming homeless when the survey was conducted by subsidizing their rents and providing emergency financial assistance.
Wheeler and Kafoury both said city and county leaders hope to increase funding for the joint office in coming years, even if the economy slows down and general fund revenues decline.
You can find a link to the survey here.
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