Sight Unseen: City’s count of people on the street finds some, but misses the broad scope of modern homeless demographics

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By Mara Grunbaum, Staff Writer

Want to fill out a survey?” asked outreach worker Brandon Schwanz of a young man on a bench outside the downtown library. “It’s so we can get an idea of how many people are homeless in the city.”

The kid laughed.

“Good luck!”

The streets may be a statistician’s nightmare. Still, every two years, Portland conducts the One Night Street Count to try to quantify the city’s homeless population. Over the last week of January, outreach workers surveyed people they found on streets, under bridges, in parks and in campgrounds. Social-service providers surveyed their clients. The one-page street count form collects demographic data and the answer to one primary question: Where did you, or where will you, spend the night of Wednesday, Jan. 28?

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development mandates the street count, and the simultaneous One Night Shelter Count, from any community that receives federal funding for housing and social service programs. The counts also give local policymakers feedback on how well their 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness is working.

The last Portland street count, in 2007, found 1,438 people sleeping outside. The shelter count, which is administered by Multnomah County, found 3,018 people in shelters, transitional housing or emergency rent assistance programs.

Schwanz works for Yellow Brick Road, an outreach team that targets Portland’s homeless youth. The evening of Jan. 27, he and two other outreach workers took street count surveys on their regular tour of downtown. None of them had given the survey before.

“It’s going to be awkward,” Schwanz predicted.

Their first stop was a weekly dinner service in the basement of First Baptist Church. Over a hundred people — mostly youths under 21, and a few families with children — crowded around long folding tables. The outreach team passed out their usual offerings of hygiene products and warm socks, checked in with kids they knew, and squeezed between chairs to fill out survey forms.
Some people had already been counted earlier in the week. Some were staying in shelters, so they would be tallied in the shelter count instead. Some had slept outside on and off; some had been on the streets for years, like the 24-year-old who said he’d been homeless since 14. Some laughed at the phrasing of the first question: “Are you currently experiencing homelessness?”

The street count focuses on people who are “unsheltered and sleeping in a place that is not intended for human habitation” — streets, parks, campgrounds, abandoned buildings.
However, people sleeping in those places are subject to citation under the city’s anti-camping ordinance, which prohibits overnighting on public land. They can be fined, jailed or excluded from public spaces. The ordinance is currently the subject of a class-action lawsuit, which alleges that outlawing camping when shelters are full is cruel and unusual punishment.
Critics of the count say that because of the camping ordinance, people are intentionally hard to find so law enforcement won’t find them.

“To say that you went out and got every single person would just be ridiculous,” said Monica Beemer, Sisters’ executive director.

However, those who run the count say that while a few people may be missed, most people who sleep outside are accounted for.

“Each time, I think our methods have gotten a little bit better,” said Sally Erickson, who manages the Bureau of Housing and Community Development’s homelessness programs. She says the bureau has worked with the count’s critics to try to make improvements. “There are going to be people who think it’s an overcount and people who think it’s an undercount. And I’ve heard both,” she added.

* * *

Some people the Yellow Brick Road team surveyed weren’t sure which boxes to check.

Near Pioneer Courthouse Square, a 31-year-old man said he’d been crashing on a friend’s couch for two months. Was he homeless?

On the sidewalk outside First Baptist Church, a 21-year-old man said he had been traveling as a D.J. and ended up marooned in Portland with no money and an expired ID. He had no place to stay, he said, but he usually went to bars and found “random girls” to go home with for the night. Was he homeless?

Critics of the count’s methodology also say that because it misses people living in hotels, sleeping on couches or sharing too-small living spaces with friends or family, the total from the street and shelter counts is a serious underestimation of the true homeless population.

HUD’s 2008 report to Congress, which incorporated information from street and shelter counts nationwide, noted that most people who become homeless do so after wearing out their welcome in someone else’s housing unit. That was especially the case for families, the report said.

Erika Silver, program director at Human Solutions, said many of her clients fit that bill. Human Solutions runs shelters and housing assistance programs for families in Portland and Gresham.

“There’s a lot of families that live in those really marginal and doubled-up kind of situations,” Silver said.

Others who may fall through the count’s cracks are those like Ted Palmer, a Street Roots vendor, and the three other men who live with him in a double motel room on Interstate Avenue. The four use the money they earn selling the paper to pay $65 a night for the room, where two of them sleep on the floor. It adds up to almost $500 a month for each of them.

After living outside for over a year, Palmer started renting the room two months ago, because he was “tired of sleeping out on the street, tired of not knowing whether police are going to harass me or not, (and) tired of my stuff getting taken.”

Though he and his roommates don’t fit into the street count, Palmer says he definitely considers himself homeless. If they didn’t make money selling Street Roots, he said, “We’d all be probably out on the streets.”

Officials acknowledge that couch-surfers and the like are an important and largely uncounted group, but they say there is no good way to track that population.

“We would love to find those people,” said Julie Osburn, who runs the shelter count for Multnomah County. Shelters count both people who are sleeping there and people who are turned away for lack of space. The turnaway data is then folded into the street count. The shelter count forms do collect information on why people are seeking shelter, so those who are staying with someone else or were just kicked out can mark it down.

“The people who are captured in the shelter count are people who tried to get help. If they didn’t call in, phone in (or) walk in during the count, we can’t capture them,” Osburn said.
Osburn didn’t know how that group could be better included, but she said the impetus would have to come down from the federal level.

Near Pioneer Courthouse Square, the Yellow Brick Road team approached a middle-aged man carrying a large backpack. He immediately recognized the survey, but refused to participate.

“You know the number they came up with (last time)? Fourteen hundred?” he said. “This is inaccurate as can be. There’s at least 5,000.”

* * *

The street count is conducted in late January because the end of the month is when people on the edge of homelessness usually run out of money, and because cold weather means shelter use is at its peak.

“People are definitely accessing whatever resources they have for housing right now,” Schwanz said. “People who are traveling, who would normally stay here in the warmer seasons, aren’t staying … These are more like the homeless citizens of Portland.”

In about three hours, the Yellow Brick Road team collected 29 surveys in all. Most people they asked were happy to participate. Several refused – a man and woman sitting in a doorway downtown thought the hovering outreach workers might attract police attention – so their presence was merely noted on the back of the survey.

Between 2005 and 2007, the street count total dropped by 39 percent, which Erickson said was a pleasant surprise.

“I expected that it would be higher,” she said. “That was great. It really looked like our (housing and rent assistance) efforts were working.”

In the past, the city and county have issued separate reports for the street and shelter count. This year, street and shelter data will be combined into what officials hope will be a more comprehensive picture. It will take several weeks to compile the information, and Erickson said she does not know what to expect from this year’s numbers.

Other indicators suggest that the number of people on the street is on the rise. In January, Oregon’s unemployment rate hit a 20-year high of 9 percent. Bankruptcy claims and food stamp applications have increased. Shelters and service agencies report heavier traffic in recent months.

Fern Elledge of Transition Projects, Inc. said the waiting list for their men’s shelter is longer than it has ever been. Since fall, there have been close to 300 people waiting for a spot.
“I’ve rarely seen it above 200,” Elledge said. “It’s a pretty significant increase there.”

Elledge said TPI has been seeing clients who are new to homelessness – “middle-class people who have lost their jobs, lost their houses … and people who could make ends meet before, but can’t now.”

Of people counted in 2007, about a third were downtown. Only 2 percent were in outer East Portland and Gresham. But in recent years, service providers have noted increased need in eastern areas, especially among families.

“There’s been a huge shift in poverty to the East in the last five to 10 years, and we definitely continue to see that,” said Silver at Human Solutions.

This changing geography may show up in the count this year, but it may not. Silver said she is concerned that outreach efforts don’t find everyone – not just for the street count, but also for attempts to connect people with services and emergency warming shelters.

“With families, they do try to stay under the radar,” Silver said, “because they get really worried that if somebody finds out, for example, that they’re living in a trailer with no water and no electricity, they’re going to come and yank the kids.”

“They’re not as visible,” Silver said. However, “We know that they’re there.”

Correction: The original version of this story stated that “for the purposes of the street count ‘homeless’ means ‘unsheltered and sleeping in a place that is not meant for human habitation.'” This language was from outdated Street Count documentation and thus slightly inaccurate. It has been corrected.

3 responses to “Sight Unseen: City’s count of people on the street finds some, but misses the broad scope of modern homeless demographics

  1. Pingback: For those who can’t afford free speech

  2. Pingback: The Ground Score « Der Kaiser’s Disdain

  3. Pingback: Lacking Indoor Shelters Options, Over a Thousand in Portland Hope to Be Allowed to Camp « Dignity Advocate

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