Homelessness in Multnomah County: Workers, volunteers embark on difficult 'point-in-time' count

February 22, 2017

Inside the warming center at the Portland Building this winter. Severe weather meant our region's homelessness count moved from late January to late February.
How many people are experiencing homelessness in Multnomah County on any given night? Are they accessing shelters or sleeping outside? Who are they? And how long have they experienced homelessness?

Since the night of Wednesday, Feb. 22, dozens of outreach workers and volunteers coordinated by the Joint Office of Homeless Services have been undertaking the difficult task of finding those answers -- part of the region’s “point in time” count of homelessness.

They will work through Tuesday, Feb. 28, asking where people slept “on the night of” Feb. 22 -- while also collecting vital demographic data meant to illustrate the breadth and depth of homelessness in our region.

They’ll gather data from shelters and interview clients at day centers. They’ll also trek to hundreds of campsites, surveys in hand, from the Gorge to Forest Park, from the Columbia River down to the Sandy River delta.

That work helps ensure our community remains eligible for significant state and federal funding for housing and homelessness services. But just as important, the count provides a snapshot of how the most vulnerable people in our community are faring in a difficult housing market and economy. That evolving picture will guide local leaders as they decide how to spend an unprecedented investment in prevention, shelter and placement strategies that end homelessness.

What will this year’s count show? How often does it happen? How does it work? Keep reading for more answers.

When is the point-in-time count?

The most recent count took place in January 2015. The current count started Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2017.

Federal officials require a basic count of people in shelters and on the streets at least every two years. Our region has kept to that schedule since holding its first count in 2005. This year’s count will be our region’s seventh. But starting in 2018, Portland and Multnomah County officials have agreed to conduct the count annually. An annual count will help providers and officials spot trends as they emerge and respond more quickly and effectively.

Why do we have a count?

The count helps us learn more about the individuals and families experiencing homelessness on any given night in Multnomah County -- and the need for services.

It captures a snapshot of neighbors who are "unsheltered" -- sleeping outside, in a car or in an abandoned building.

It also provides information on people sleeping in (or turned away from) emergency shelters, motels and transitional housing -- as well as those receiving rent assistance and permanent supportive housing who would otherwise be homeless without the subsidy.

Ryan Deibert, the program specialist at the Joint Office of Homeless Services, who has worked on every count, has spent months preparing for this year’s effort.

He says that despite the strenuous effort to reach as many people as possible, the effort is still technically an “undercount” that won’t capture everyone who’s homeless. People’s circumstances change quickly as they move in and out of homelessness, and physical locations may be overlooked.

Still, the count is one of the best gauges of what’s happening, along with data and reports provided regularly by providers and other sources of information.

Some of the survey questions neighbors in shelters or on the streets will be asked as part of the Point in Time count.

How does the county come together?

More than two-dozen professional outreach workers, familiar with the far-flung sites they’re surveying and the people who inhabit them, make up the backbone of the effort. This year, they’ll be supported by more than 70 volunteers.

Those outreach workers divide Multnomah County into sections and methodically work through each site, sometimes making multiple passes. Outreach teams also keep a count of people who decline to participate -- data that’s reported in an appendix but isn’t included in the official report because it’s impossible to identify those people and make sure they haven’t been double-counted.

Volunteers also are taking shifts at shelters and day centers obtaining survey data from clients. This year’s count has some 170 volunteer slots spread over 32 sites.

Surveys track ages, ethnicities, how long someone’s lived in the county, their recent experiences with homelessness, whether they have experience with domestic violence and whether they have any disabling conditions.

What did the 2015 count reveal?

The count in 2015 showed overall homelessness holding relatively steady between 2013 and 2015. Nearly 4,000 people were counted sleeping on the street, in shelter or in temporary housing. Nearly 1,900 on the street.

And though there were some bright spots, such as a 17 percent decline in chronic homelessness among individual adults, it also pointed to some serious concerns. The number of unsheltered African Americans, who are disproportionately affected by poverty, rose 48 percent. The 2015 report also charted increases in homelessness among women, families and veterans.

Those findings helped local governments and nonprofit partners refine their approach to ending homelessness as part of the region’s A Home for Everyone Initiative. New prevention and housing placement efforts have been directed through culturally specific providers with deep ties to communities of color. And officials worked with the federal government to functionally end homelessness among veterans, meaning more veterans are leaving homeless than entering it on any given day.

What about people who are couch-surfing or doubled up?

People who are doubled up or couch-surfing represent a significant portion of the individuals and families experiencing housing instability in Multnomah County.

But federal and state guidelines for the point-in-time count do not include those populations. Instead, the report draws from data collected by partner organizations to provide estimates about who might be doubled up and couch surfing population. Culturally specific providers tell us that people of color are disproportionately represented in these populations.

Why is this year's county held in late February?

The count typically occurs in late January as mandated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). HUD requires homeless counts to happen during the last 10 days of January to capture data when shelter use peaks because of weather. It also requires counts take place at the end of the month because that’s when neighbors who cycle on and off the streets are most likely to be homeless, having depleted their monthly income or benefits.

Because of severe weather conditions in the weeks leading up to this year's count, HUD approved our community's request to delay the count until the end of February.

What will the 2017 count show?

That won’t become clear until our report comes out in late spring, after researchers at Portland State University spend months analyzing the data and making sure no one’s been counted more than once.

But it’s almost certain we’ll see an increase in the number of people using shelters -- in part because Portland and Multnomah County, working with nonprofit and business partners, have added more than 600 beds over the past year, nearly doubling our previous capacity.