Is the number of homeless people in Multnomah County dwindling or on the rise? And who exactly makes up the homeless population?
The government office that might answer those questions is waiting for the upcoming Point-in-Time Count — the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development-mandated count of homeless people — to respond definitively.
The count, occurring this year Feb. 22-28, paints a picture for government officials so they may direct resources, allocate funding and even shape policy. Previously a biannual effort, the last count was conducted in 2015.
At last week's Multnomah County Commissioners work session, city commissioners squeezed in too in order to hear an update on their $20 million investment in the seven-month-old Joint Office of Homeless Services, established to address the city's homeless crisis. It works in conjunction with A Home For Everyone, an initiative between the city, county, city of Gresham and Home Forward.
Only Marc Jolin, the office's director, couldn't actually report to commissioners whether or not homelessness has decreased.
"We won't know exactly what kind of progress we're actually making toward reducing homelessness," Jolin said, when asked by Mayor Ted Wheeler if the office was on track to reduce homelessness by half by June 2017, a planning goal from 2015.
He said the office is "successfully pushing toward additional shelter capacity," but what numbers are going to actually look like will have to be determined in the count. The office and A Home For Everyone coordinate the count.
Jolin told commissioners the area's housing market poses a significant challenge in reaching goals. Portland Housing Bureau's December State of Housing report showed that housing affordability in Portland has gotten worse as rent and home prices continue to rise.
"We've made historic investments ... we've helped so many more people, and yet that work is being swamped by what's happening with the housing market," says Denis Theriault, Joint Office spokesman. "I think we have some real threats that we can't control."
Though they're depending on the count for a complete picture, Jolin said, "We're seeing a lot of new people in our system."
Counting on the count
The count is required by HUD to be performed during the last 10 days of January, but due to January's winter storms and outreach worker exhaustion, it was pushed back a month.
The count, typically billed as happening "on a single night," actually takes place over a week, though it will focus on Feb. 22. Count respondees must have slept outside on Feb. 22 to be counted. On the same night, a "One Night Shelter Count" occurs to gather information on people in shelters or transitional housing. In 2015, 3,800 slept on the street, in shelter and in temporary housing; 1,887 of those were on the street.
Without the street count, the city and county would not be eligible to receive federal funding and homeless services grants, which are about $22.3 million a year. That's a little less than one-quarter of the total in annual federal, state and local funding dedicated to ending homelessness in Multnomah County: $224 million.
The count will give insight to officials not only on the number of people on the street, but their demographics so they can more appropriately direct resources — an effort Jolin says they've been working on since the 2015 count.
"In 2015 ... we could see the demographics of who was coming into the system and we've been targeting our resources," Jolin told county commissioners. "2017 will tell us that's what we've been doing the last two years. If the need has changed, we need to adjust our strategies to that point. One of the reasons we're moving to annual count is so we can make those adjustments more quickly."
Officials decided in January to take the count annually.
Many resources after 2015's count were directed to culturally-specific organizations when the count found a 48 percent increase in homeless African-Americans. The Joint Office of Homeless Services made selected partnerships with organizations including Self Enhancement Inc. (SEI) and Urban League, which have histories of targeted outreach to the black community. It also established partnerships with youth and domestic violence organizations.
Though HUD has required that communities receiving HUD-funded services grants to conduct counts since 2005, Multnomah County started countywide street counts in 2002. Data from the counts are reported back to HUD, which produces its own report from counts conducted across the country, compiled in its Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress.
Is it accurate?
Though much rests on the picture that's painted from the count, officials know it's an undercount and admit as much.
Much goes into trying to make sure it's as accurate as possible, including adjusting methodology as needed and updating site lists (encampent areas).
"This year, we're using that same methodology that we've used in past years, but we're always in the process of updating the sites, adding to that site list and amending it," says Ryan Deibert. Deibert, who works as a programmer with the Joint Office of Homeless Services, previously worked on the Portland Housing Bureau team for ending homelessness for eight years. "We also recognize with the street count, we've always portrayed it as such that it's an undercount. There's no way we're actually counting everyone who's experiencing homelessness."
Some in the community want to aid in making the count as complete as possible, concerned that the undercount means Portland's homeless problem isn't getting the level of assistance it needs.
Oregon Harbor of Hope, a group of developers and others in the private sector interested in ending homelessness in Portland, decided to participate in the count this year to get a full understanding of the process. They're also working to do their own survey of homeless people, not a substitute for the count, but to help their group "continue our mission to help the homeless on behalf of the private sector in partnership with the public sector," says Don Mazziotti, former Portland Development Commission director and director of Oregon Harbor of Hope.
"How do you deal with an issue when you don't have accurate information?" says Michael Withey, member of Oregon Harbor of Hope and founder of Micro Community Concepts, an organization that pushes for tiny homes as one solution to the affordable housing crisis.
To that, officials say they are just following HUD rules for the count, which identifies only those literally on the street. Anyone doubled up and couch surfing is not counted. HUD's definition of homeless has caused some contention, since other agencies, such as the U.S. Department of Education, go by a broader definition of homeless and include those who may be doubled up and living with another family.
"There are those who say that this count does not express the totality of the need out there on the streets of this country," says Brian Sullivan, HUD spokesman. "To that we say, exactly, yes. We totally agree that this count doesn't express the totality of need in our country. But this is what the count is."
He says HUD's report to Congress does include data from the Department of Education.
The last time HUD's definition of homeless was changed was in 2009 with the establishment of the Homeless Emergency Assistance and Rapid Transition to Housing Act (HEARTH), when Congress directed HUD to adjust the definition to not only include those on the street, but also those at "imminent risk of being homeless." However, that part of the definition does not apply to the Point-in-Time Count. Sullivan says it would take a statute change to broaden the definition to include those doubled up or couch surfing, an adjustment that HUD doesn't agree with.
"So, we agree (that the count doesn't express the full need), except for the part about opening HUD's programs to anybody who (doesn't have a home) because we have other programs for people without their own home," Sullivan says. He adds that the country is "in the middle of an affordable housing crisis," and that there are a "great amount of people in our country who are rent burdened ... one in four families who need help actually receives it."
Portland's count has undergone a few changes this year, including a consultant change. Portland State University's Institute of Portland Metropolitan Studies was brought on to help make the count accurate for future years. Kristina Smock was previously employed as the primary consultant for the last several counts, but a request for proposals was issued following her marriage to Jolin.
The institute's researchers are not only helping to refine questions on the form to improve response rates, they've also partnered with Coalition of Communities of Color, which has provided advice on improving methodology so it better reflects the experiences of people of color. Sheila Martin, director at the institute, says the coalition has helped in identifying organizations that help homeless people.
"One of the concerns of the last count was that (officials) might not have been doing as good of a job as they could've been reaching out to those organizations," she says.
Asking homeless individuals the right questions in the right order can be extremely helpful in improving response rates.
Martin says there were some questions on the survey that were "a little bit awkward in terms of the order in which things are asked." They've also aimed to weed out all questions that aren't absolutely necessary in order to improve rates.
"So we're trying to limit the burden for people on responding while getting the data that we need," Martin says.
Withey is ready to go on the count, and is more optimistic about this year than previous years.
"I'm actually pretty impressed. I think this year is making a bigger impact than last time. I think there's a lot more volunteers and people involved in the actual count and the process," he says. But he still hopes for a separate city and county count that isn't confined by federal government rules and definitions.
Though there are 14 questions on a form, only four basic questions are required to be documented: first letter of the first name; first three letters of the last name; age; and gender. This year, HUD added an option for transgender individuals.
In the 2015 count, 635 homeless people in Multnomah County did not provide identifying information to be officially counted, though they are still tracked through refusal forms and included in an appendix with the Point-in-Time Count.
The 635 individuals include people whom outreach workers didn't want to disturb while sleeping; who were camped at sites that outreach workers couldn't enter; or were seen camping, but refused to participate in the survey. It also includes people who said they were homeless on the night of the count, but weren't willing to share any other information. Forty-nine percent of those people were located downtown, while 18 percent were in Southeast Portland.
What it is
Multnoman County's Point-in-Time Count will count those who respond that they were unsheltered on Feb. 22.
Unsheltered means sleeping in a public or private place not intended for human habitation and includes streets, doorways, sidewalks, vehicles, parks, woods, open space, bridges, overpasses, railroads, abandoned buildings, boats not equipped for residential use, all-night commercial establishments, building roofs or stairwells. People who are camping or staying on other people's property in garages, sheds, tents, porches or backyards are considered unsheltered if they are sleeping somewhere without heat or running water and do not have access to these facilities.
Unsheltered does not include those who are doubled up or couch surfing, staying in a shelter or transitional housing, staying overnight in a jail, hospital or other institutions.
How HUD funds are used
The funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which are only provided to communities who complete the Point-in-Time Count, come through two federal programs known as the Continuum of Care (CoC) program and Emergency Solutions Grant (ESG) program.
The city-county Joint Office of Homeless Services receives a little more than $21.6 million annually through the CoC program and $700,000 through ESG.
"That helps to fund a little more than 50 distinct projects at roughly two-dozen different organizations across Multnomah County to provide a range of services including emergency shelter, and short- and long-term rent assistance," says Ryan Deibert, programmer at the Joint Office. "Most of the funds support permanent housing assistance for people to move from homelessness into housing, and they assist approximately 2,000 households per year."