Starting tonight, Wednesday, Jan. 26, outreach workers, service providers and more than 100 volunteers coordinated by Portland State University and the Joint Office of Homeless Services will undertake Multnomah County’s first Point in Time Count of unsheltered homelessness since 2019.

Every day and night through Tuesday, Feb. 1, they’ll be working to reach as many neighbors experiencing homelessness as possible, asking them where they slept the night of Jan. 26.

Surveyors will also ask for vital demographic data that can be used to determine a fuller picture of who is experiencing homelessness — for example, their age, race and ethnicity, the length of time that they’ve been homeless, whether they have a disabling condition, and whether they are veterans or have experienced domestic violence.

The results of the survey data, plus the official snapshot counts of people without shelter, in transitional housing or in shelter the night of Jan. 26, will be issued in a report by the Joint Office of Homeless Services later in the year.

The Count of unsheltered community members is the first since the COVID-19 pandemic began. The pandemic continues to present serious challenges for vulnerable community members, has sharply affected service providers, and has left unsheltered homelessness far more visible in the Portland area.

The region was originally scheduled to conduct a Point in Time Count that included the unsheltered population in January 2021. But because most community members had yet to be vaccinated from COVID-19 at that time, the federal government allowed jurisdictions across the country to delay until this year.

Coordination of the Count led by Portland State

For the second Count in a row, coordination of the Count is being led by the Regional Research Institute at Portland State University(link is external), through a contract with the Joint Office.

This year, Portland State and the Joint Office are also working to align counting standards with Clackamas County. The Joint Office is also working to align its data analysis and reporting with Clackamas and Washington Counties. That work is part of a larger effort to better coordinate services regionally in the wake of the tri-county Supportive Housing Services Measure led by Metro.

This year, a record number of public volunteers — more than 150 — expressed interest in helping with the Count and surveying people experiencing homelessness. \

They will join professional outreach workers, all heading out, with surveys in hand, to campsites from the eastside to the westside, and from the Columbia River south to Johnson Creek. Surveyors will also reach people at meal sites, shelters and other locations to collect responses.

Representatives from partner governments and agencies such as Metro and the City of Gresham will participate, as well.

Federally required Count doesn’t tell the whole story

The federal government requires the Point in Time Count and prescribes the timeframe for the Count. While the outcome of the Count does not directly affect funding levels, conducting an accurate tally helps ensure our community remains eligible for more than $25 million in federal funding for housing and homelessness services. (Those funds are separate from federal COVID-19 funding.)

The Count also provides a view of how the most vulnerable people in our community are faring, and helps guide policy decisions and budget allocations. But organizers and advocates also note the Count has limits and that its results can be misunderstood, in part because of the information the Count isn’t able to provide.

The Count, which is structured by the federal government as a one-night snapshot, isn’t designed to gather the following data points:

  • How many people come in and out of homelessness over the course of a year. The extent of homelessness in the community isn’t static, and the number of people annually experiencing homelessness is much larger than a one-night number. 
  • The community’s progress helping people back into housing.
  • People who are doubled up, living temporarily with friends, family, loved ones or others. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development excludes those neighbors from the definition of homelessness that is used for the Count. Culturally specific providers tell us that people of color are underrepresented in the Count as a result.

This year the pandemic will present additional challenges to the Count. Outreach and shelter staff may be sick or unavailable during the counting period. And some programs that commonly serve people experiencing homelessness are still not open or are operating at limited capacity. Count organizers are preparing to make up for those as needed. And any impacts will be tracked and documented in subsequent reports.

On the night of the 2019 Count, a total of 4,015 people were counted as experiencing homelessness, as defined by the federal government. Of those, 2,037 were unsheltered, 1,459 were in emergency shelter and 519 were in transitional housing.

By way of comparison, on one night in January 2019, the Joint Office and its partners in the community were supporting more than 12,000 people in housing programs. 

Even amid the pandemic, the Joint Office has worked to maintain shelter capacity, even adding new options, while also continuing to house people out of homelessness and keep them from falling back into homelessness again.