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Counting the homeless

Annual homeless count offers supplies, meals while gauging community needs

Quantifying Columbia County’s homeless population is a challenging task, but the Community Action Team is attempting to do just that.

COURTNEY VAUGHN - Cheryl Hopkins and Alex Tardif serve meals to people during a one-day homeless count at the Community Action Team office in St. Helens.Just before noon Wednesday, a handful of people spilled out onto the steps of CAT’s office on 17th Street in St. Helens. Wednesday marked the third day of a five-day homeless count effort that has been conducted in a different community each day.

Inside the CAT building, homeless people could stock up on winter clothes, underwear, a water bottle and a tent, while grabbing a sandwich and a cup of coffee.

A man with salt-and-pepper hair pulled back in a ponytail under a ball cap stood outside after picking up some essentials during the daylong event.

He’s staying at a Christian sober living house in St. Helens, but finding anything permanent beyond that will be challenging.

“It’s a full-time job, living homeless, trying to figure out how to get the things you need to survive to be human,” the man, whose name is being withheld to protect his privacy, said as he finished the last of his coffee. He said he spent many years enjoying and abusing drugs, partying and getting by.

“But now I’m 49 and it’s not cool anymore,” he said. “You reap what you sow. I don’t mind living outside. I’ve learned how to do it, but people look down at you.”

Others come and go, some sifting through bins of shoes, others staying to chat with volunteers before heading out on bikes or on foot.

COURTNEY VAUGHN - Martha Olmstead, housing program coordinator with CAT, helps sort proper fitting shoes from a bin of donated Nike sneakers during Wednesday's homeless count in St. Helens. “We’ve had about 25 people stop by so far today,” Martha Olmstead, a housing program coordinator with CAT, reported Wednesday. The one-day homeless count in St. Helens wasn’t halfway over.

On Monday, volunteers opened up a church in Rainier for part of the day. Tuesday, homeless people in Clatskanie were counted, with a count scheduled for Vernonia on Thursday and Scappoose the following day.

The annual homeless count doesn’t yield accurate numbers, but the survey gives CAT a frame of reference when assessing the county’s needs.

A 2015 point-in-time homeless count showed 13,176 people are homeless across the state, a report released by the Oregon Department of Housing and Community Services indicates. That same report counted 317 homeless people in Columbia County, with 274 of those people classified as unsheltered.

Like Portland, most of Columbia County’s homeless population relies on tents to provide shelter from the elements while living outside.

In 2015, state lawmakers committed more than $60 million toward building affordable housing in both urban and rural areas, but for most, it can’t come soon enough.

“This year, we see that the number of people experiencing homelessness has remained steady from our last count,” Margaret Van Vliet, the director of Oregon Housing and Community Services, stated in a news release last year with the publication of the statewide annual homeless count. “However, this count shows increasing numbers of homeless families in rural areas.”