January 5, 2021

For immediate release

Denis Theriault | Joint Office of Homeless Services | denis.theriault@multco.us

MEDIA RELEASE: Amid ongoing COVID surge concerns, Joint Office joins other West Coast communities in seeking partial Point in Time Count delay 

PORTLAND (Jan. 5, 2021) — As COVID-19 continues to surge, and with concerns rising over new and more virulent coronavirus strains, the Joint Office of Homeless Services will join other local and West Coast communities in asking the federal government for permission to protect vulnerable community members and delay the unsheltered portion of this year’s Point in Time Count.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) normally requires communities to undertake a count of people who are unsheltered, in shelters and in transitional housing at least every two years. But late last year, the federal government told communities they could opt out of the unsheltered portion of the count for safety reasons — without jeopardizing their federal funding.

After consulting with Multnomah County Public Health, and after receiving approval from the Portland and Multnomah County elected officials who oversee the Joint Office, the Joint Office has decided to seek such an exemption. 

“It’s a difficult decision, but we don’t see a way to conduct as accurate of an unsheltered count as we’ve done in past years without creating additional health risks for thousands of vulnerable people and our provider community,” said Marc Jolin, director of the Joint Office. “That’s not a trade-off we’re willing to make.”

The Joint Office will still conduct a census of people in shelter and transitional housing, relying on data pulled from bed counts.

But the unsheltered portion of the count would shift to January 2022. The Joint Office would also work with other data sets, including lists of people experiencing chronic homelessness seeking supportive housing, to understand the demographics of those who have experienced unsheltered homelessness over the past two years. 

Substantial undertaking brings substantial new risk

During a pandemic that feeds on social connections and face-to-face contact, the unsheltered count poses substantial risks for providers and volunteers — and especially for people experiencing homelessness, who often have underlying health conditions that leave them at higher risk of developing serious and fatal COVID-19 infections.

Normally, the unsheltered count sends hundreds of volunteers and paid outreach workers across the County for days, finding people who are often isolated. They then administer surveys that require long and close conversations to ensure data reliability. 

But in the current phase of the pandemic, that kind of mixing — without urgent life-safety reasons, including medical emergencies, shelter or housing opportunities, or the distribution of cold-weather or COVID-19 supplies — would present unnecessary risks.

It would also put additional burdens on service providers who have worked harder than ever these past few months while managing concerns over outbreaks and quarantines among their own staff and clients.

“Survey data is one way we can help tell the community more about who is experiencing unsheltered homelessness and why. It has value. But the risks are simply too high,” Jolin said. “Right now, and especially given these past few weeks in the pandemic, our in-person work should remain focused on health, housing and safety.”

At this time, the federal government has granted exemptions to West Coast communities including Seattle/King County and Los Angeles County. Locally, Clackamas County also has requested an exemption.

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