Homeless street count tallies 1500

By Joanne Zuhl
staff writer

According to JOIN, the homeless advocacy service, there were 1,571 people sleeping outside in Portland on May 23.

But this figure, compiled by JOIN in a nighttime count at the request of the city of Portland, is buffered with caveats and limitations. Both the city and JOIN have no doubt that the figure is far below the actual number of people living on the streets of Portland. And both say that the resources and money needed to do a proper count don't exist.

"There's limitations to all the data," said Heather Lyons, homeless programs specialist with the Portland Bureau of Housing and Community Development. "And JOIN will say pretty clearly that this is an undercount. And I believe that because I don't think there's any way of really getting a good number."

The complications are indicative of the homeless condition, coupled with laws that make sleeping outside in any form of temporary housing illegal. Homeless people who sleep outside aren't looking for attention. Fortunately for the city, JOIN specializes in finding people living on the street and transitioning them into permanent housing.

"What you're getting with a street count is the real knowledge of our five outreach workers who spend their time outside," said Rob Justice, executive director with JOIN. "What you're getting is one moment in time. So that's why we really feel like the count is an underestimation. Without question."

JOIN's 2003 count is actually down about 100 from its first street count in 2002, this despite a consensus among those in the field that the homeless population is growing.

Exactly how many people are homeless in Portland is a question that Lyons hears almost daily. Lyons' department estimates that at any point in time, there are about 3,500 homeless people in the city, based largely on twice-yearly shelter counts conducted by Multnomah County, including those turned away, and now the street count. The more striking figure is that over the course of a year, Lyons there are approximately 16,000 people who experience homelessness in Portland.

What alarmed Lyons about JOIN's report was the number of chronically homeless people, those people who have been homeless for approximately a year or more.

"In shelters, and other homeless-related programs, the chronically homeless usually are 10 to 20 percent of the population," said Lyons. "And the street count estimated that it was closer to 70 percent, I wasn't expecting it to be that high. There are limitations on a street count, but I believe in the integrity of the count. A lot of the chronically homeless are not accessing shelters and services, and there is significant work that needs to be done to try to get them housed.

"The fact is," Lyons said, "there are still almost 1,600 people sleeping outside and I think that's unacceptable for a city this size."

This is the second year in a row that the city has chosen JOIN to conduct the count because of its focus on working with homeless people sleeping outside. Justice said the organization averages about one person per day who transitions into permanent housing, most of the time by circumventing shelters and traditional options. For the street count, the five outreach workers were dispersed to five police precincts in the city. To avoid duplication, each worker counted only those individuals known to sleep within their assigned precinct boundary.

The count consists only of those individuals the workers could confidently say were sleeping outside on May 23, including some individuals sleeping in vehicles. But it does not include those who are considered marginally housed, those sleeping on friend's couches, flophouses, single-room occupancy sites, shelters or motels. Nor does it include the homeless encampment of Dignity Village, which has reached its population limit of 60.

Although JOIN receives about $150,000 from the city each year toward its budget, the request for the street count was not funded and was outside of JOIN's contract with the city.

The information drawn from the count is used for planning and for federal grant applications.

Portland and other communities across the country are faced with a financial ultimatum from the federal government: Develop a homeless management information system or risk losing $4.2 million in federal funding for homeless services. This system runs in tandem with a 10-year plan the Bush administration is taking to cities in an effort to end homelessness. The deadline for the information system to come on-line is October 2004.

"It's huge," said Lyons. "It's so overwhelming to think that we have to implement this. It is going to cost a lot of money."

But as financial resources are stretched more each year, Lyons said that the city has a difficult time justifying spending more money on compiling data rather than delivering services.

"I think that everyone in the process has agreed we need to save programs before we save data," Lyons said, adding that she believes the data program is a good idea.

"If we want to get to the point where we're getting unduplicated numbers, we're going to need to find out more information than what is their gender and age."

Bryan Pollard knows firsthand the difficulties inherent with counting the homeless. Pollard is the former managing editor of street roots and a crew leader in the 2000 census charged with counting the homeless in Portland. He believes the 2000 Census reached only about 25 percent to 30 percent of the homeless sites in the city, given the very limited time and resources available to do the count, and that's only a fraction of a reality that needs to be brought to light, he said. The final numbers, however, have not been released by the census.

"An accurate count of the homeless is essential for federal, state and local municipalities so they can assess a problem and know what they are dealing with," said Pollard, who now lives in Oklahoma. "Sadly, most governments have neither the strength of character nor the moral fiber to do anything about it even with reliable information. Until governmental officials at all levels understand the necessity for caring for everyone in our communities, not just those with material wealth, then the population figures are just numbers on a page."

It is widely agreed among workers in the field, including Lyons, that the homeless population in Portland is only getting larger. Recent budget cuts have compounded the problem.

"From what we've seen, the numbers have increased greatly from last year," said Jamie Manuel with crossroads, the homeless advocacy organization born of the Sisters of the Road Cafˇ. "We've got 670 shelter beds in the winter. So, 1,571 people sleeping outside or 3,000 sleeping outside. What's the difference? We're failing to serve the population and the numbers show that we're failing."

Manuel said that rather than have JOIN conduct the count on its own, the city should add its resources and money to do a more comprehensive data collection. To routinely neglect a thorough approach is irresponsible, Manuel said.

"Where this is problematic is in the long run, we need to make long-term plans for solving the problem," Manuel said. "And to do that we have to have an accurate idea of the size of the problem."

Justice said that he and his organization view the numbers compiled in the street count as small, but others, specifically within the city, he said, have been surprised from their perspective how large it is.

"We did the street count because we were asked to and we do see a benefit in trying to get a decent number out there to say that there are lots of people living on Portland's streets," Justice said. "In the end, the numbers mean little. What does mean something is that there are human beings sleeping outside who many don't want to be there and many don't have a choice. So, I'm not really interested in debating lots of numbers when its clear that the system as a whole that deals with homeless people is completely inadequate.

"If there is a serious desire to get a more accurate number, than the resources and energy need to be put into doing that," Justice said.

Michael Anderson, the communications coordinator with the nonprofit Community Development Network, said Portland is not alone in the problem of trying to track its homeless population. But he hopes that the city uses the information, combined with solid information about the homeless, to develop a substantive plan to get new funding for affordable housing. The network, an association of nonprofit community development organizations in Multnomah County, is campaigning for a real estate transfer fee that would help fund affordable housing.

"In a city of Portland's affluence, having 1,500 people living on the streets, many of whom are veterans, under the constant threat of police, is disgusting," Anderson said. "I think that's more important than numbers. Even with these conservative numbers we're talking about two and a half times the number of people that could be helped in the shelters are sleeping on the street. Even if the shelters were the answer, we're addressing less than a third of the population."

The last major planning effort by the city to address homelessness was the shelter reconfiguratiohn plan developed in the mid-1990s, said Marshall Runkel, aid to Erik Sten, whose office oversees the Bureau of Housing and Community Development. That plan called for moving away from mass shelter programs into more client-specific shelters and ultimately moving in the direction of transitional housing. That was just the tip of the iceberg compared to the current thinking which, according to the administration's 10-year plan, is moving away from the shelter system and putting resources into permanent housing. That's where the money needs to go, Runkel said, not on more reports.

"I'm not particularly interested in spending money on a report that just describes what the problem is," Runkel said. "I think everybody knows what the scale of the problem is in Portland. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure that out."