Full 2022 Point in Time Count report shows COVID-19 added to unsheltered homelessness

November 9, 2022

PORTLAND — Among more than 2,000 people asked about the impact of COVID-19 as part of the 2022 Point in Time (PIT) Count, roughly one in four — 24% — affirmatively said the pandemic directly contributed to their homelessness. 

In total, 543 people — including 382 people who were unsheltered — answered yes to the question, which was a new feature in this year’s count, the first since the pandemic shook up the local economy and social services starting in 2020. 

Those 543 people equate to nearly half the overall increase in one-night homelessness counted between the previous January 2019 count and this year’s, and nearly 40% of the increase among people counted on one night without shelter.

That finding is among several new details included in the full, detailed 2022 Point in Time Count report, released Wednesday, Nov. 9, months after top-line numbers for the Metro region were shared publicly in May in a summary report and news release.

Overall, based on the federal government’s limited definition of homelessness, 5,228 people were counted as experiencing homelessness in Portland and Multnomah County on the night of Jan. 26, 2022, including 3,057 people without shelter, 1,485 in shelter and 686 in transitional housing.

Other findings in the full report include:

  1. The innovative use of the Joint Office’s existing by-name lists as a supplement to the Count for the first time contributed significantly to the increase in people identified as experiencing unsheltered homelessness.

The number of people added to the Count who were identified as unsheltered on Coordinated Entry lists — by-name lists of vulnerable people who have been assessed for supportive housing — exceeds the difference in unsheltered people counted between 2019 and 2022. The increase in people counted as homeless overall was primarily driven by an increase in people identified as unsheltered.  

  1. Expanded shelter capacity and new shelter models are reaching people who are chronically homeless.

Someone who has at least one disabling condition and has experienced homelessness for a year or more, meets the federal government’s definition of a person experiencing chronic homelessness. Among those surveyed for this year’s Count, 3,120 people met those criteria.

As the Joint Office of Homeless Services has increased shelter capacity — before and during the pandemic, while also adding a diverse range of low-barrier shelter options such as motels and villages — the percentage of people in shelter who are experiencing chronic homelessness continues to increase, from 20% in 2015 to 65% in 2022.

Overall, among those who responded to survey questions about disabling conditions, 80% reported having at least one such condition, and 37% reported having three or more.

  1. Racial disparities grew since 2019, highlighting the need for more culturally specific services to directly address gaps, like those recently launched with funding from the Supportive Housing Services Measure. 

Black, Indigenous and Other People of Color (BIPOC) make up 38.9% of the people surveyed in this year’s Count, but 34.3% of Multnomah County’s total population.

The highest rates of overrepresentation in overall homelessness continue to be among people who identify as American Indian, Alaska Native or Indigenous, Black or African American, and Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander. And real-life disparities are likely even higher than what’s captured in the Count. 

  1. Only 10% of those surveyed for the PIT Count reported coming to Multnomah County already homeless and in search of services.

The Count traditionally asks a series of questions related to persistent — and regularly debunked — concerns that Multnomah County is attracting a large number of people in search of homeless services. The reality noted in past reports persists: 90% of people surveyed did not come to Multnomah County homeless and in search of services. And, of those who did come to Multnomah County while already experiencing homelessness, 40% came from the regional counties or the rest of Oregon. 

The report notes that funds from Metro’s Supportive Housing Services measure began reaching Clackamas and Washington counties in July 2021, helping those counties meaningfully begin to build and then sustain their own homeless services response systems. Services in those communities, along with more funding for services statewide, would help ease pressure on services funded right now in Portland and Multnomah County.

Looking forward: Addressing inflow with more shelter, housing investments — and a regional 2023 Point in Time Count

The findings in the Point in Time Count — coming amid a global pandemic that pushed hundreds of people into homelessness — make clear that Portland and Multnomah County’s response to homelessness cannot focus solely on what happens only once someone loses their housing. 

“We will never effectively end homelessness if we do not address the factors that continue to push new people into homelessness: rising rents, inadequate incomes, racial injustice, and a lack of access to adequate physical and behavioral healthcare,” this year’s report says. “To put it plainly: You can empty the sink over and over again, but if the tap is still running, you’re going to have a flood. And our tap is still running.”

At the same, the Joint Office will continue to expand its existing work funding supportive housing, shelter and street outreach, thanks to new local funds and resources from the Metro Supportive Housing Services Measure.

Last year, the Joint Office helped support 4,560 people moving from homelessness back into permanent housing, while also serving 6,000 people in a shelter system that added several locations. 

The Joint Office will conduct another full PIT Count in January 2023, returning the Count to its traditional schedule. The 2021 Count was delayed to 2022 because of the pandemic.

Because of the increase in regional planning and programming brought about by the Supportive Housing Services Measure, the next count will be carried out in full coordination and collaboration between Multnomah, Clackamas, and Washington counties. The counties are working to develop an appropriate regional count methodology. Each county will also continue to report data individually.

Limitations in the Point in Time Count: Not a measurement of inflow and outflow, or program success

The federally required day of the Count — Jan. 26 — turned out to mark the height of Multnomah County’s first Omicron variant surge, which caused staffing disruptions to businesses and schools, while straining the healthcare system.

Entire teams of outreach workers and volunteers — also scrambling to maintain operations at programs affected by the COVID-19 surge — were unavailable to conduct or even prioritize Point in Time surveys locally. In addition, there were reports of increased reluctance among people camping to participate in the Count because of impacts from the pandemic.

The Joint Office tapped its strategically expanded capacity for data analysis to address these challenges — using existing by-name lists to supplement survey results. But these measures only partially offset the pandemic’s impacts. 

As a result, the report notes that the data it presents this year should be used with caution. Differences in the data used for this year’s PIT make assessing some types of change over time entirely unreliable. 

And for all historical comparisons, the report also notes, it’s difficult to say with confidence whether any changes are temporary and acute effects driven by the pandemic, or whether any changes will be enduring. 

In addition, the report says the numbers identified by any PIT Count, whether during the pandemic or not, “cannot be used as an overall benchmark for the success of the homelessness response system.”

The PIT Count, for example, is not designed to describe inflow and outflow to and from homelessness, calling that information “more meaningful and more accurate markers of a community’s ability to address homelessness” rather than a limited one-night count.

“Too often, community members, public officials and others reading the PIT mistakenly describe the people counted on a given night as a static, unchanging group, when the reality is the makeup of the people who meet the definition of HUD homelessness is different on any given night,” the report says. “The same 5,228 counted January 26 would likely not be counted on another day.

“The number might be higher, or lower. Some of the people counted on January 26 will have been housed or might have moved away. And new people will continue to fall into homelessness, taking their place.”

About the Joint Office of Homeless Services

Before the Joint Office was created in July 2016, Portland and Multnomah County each served different populations of people experiencing homelessness.

The City historically oversaw shelter, outreach and supportive housing programs for single adults and adults experiencing chronic homelessness, as well as the PIT Count — operating a larger, more expensive system than Multnomah County.

The County historically served youth, families and domestic violence survivors, providing shelter, outreach and supportive housing programs for those groups.

Through the Joint Office, the County has been able to support the City in its traditional role serving adults and adults experiencing chronic homelessness.

This year, over half of the Joint Office’s budget — which the Joint Office presented to both the Portland City Council and the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners during each government’s annual budgeting process — is dedicated to expanding and operating shelter.