A clearer picture of who’s homeless in Multnomah County

The largest spike in 2017 was the number of people sleeping in vehicles

A homeless person's belongings in a shopping cart outside their tent, March 13, 2017. (KOIN)

PORTLAND, Ore. (PORTLAND TRIBUNE) — New data released on Monday shows a clearer picture of who’s homeless these days in Multnomah County.

It shows ongoing racial disparities, higher numbers those experiencing homelessness in Southeast Portland, and higher reports of those with disabling conditions, among other insights.

A summary report was released in June, but full results weren’t available until this week — a full eight months after volunteers were out surveying homeless people around Multnomah County. The last full report came out in 2015.

Called the Point in Time count, it’s mandated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Each county conducts a count, which is included in a state report then sent to Congress for funding.

It also serves as a guide for the county to then direct funding to appropriate social service organizations. In 2015, Multnomah County observed a spike in homeless African Americans, so it allocated funding to agencies with expertise helping those groups. In 2017, there were 186 fewer homeless African Americans than in 2015, according to the report.

As reported in June, there were 4,177 people who met HUD’s definition of homeless on Feb. 22, 2017, a 9.9 percent increase from 2015’s count of 3,801.

However, there was an 11.6 percent decrease in those unsheltered due to efforts to create more shelter space in the county. The number of those sleeping on the streets was 1,668.

Government officials acknowledge that the count is likely an undercount of those who are homeless, because HUD’s definition doesn’t include those who are doubled up and living with others — as well as the fact that counting people on one night (the count was actually conducted over several days, but asks people where they slept on a single night) isn’t likely to capture everyone.

Independent volunteers and volunteers with social service organizations go out on foot with clipboards to conduct the count.

The full Point in Time report includes a number of interesting insights about Portland and Multnomah County’s homeless population, including challenges to commonly held misconceptions — such as that most homeless people are from out of town.

In fact, findings show that 770 out of the 1,668 unsheltered homeless, or 46.2 percent, reported having been in the county for more than two years.

Meanwhile, 341, or 20.4 percent, said that they were originally from Multnomah County.

“It’s a homegrown crisis,” said Denis Theriault, spokesman for the Joint Office of Homeless Services and A Home For Everyone, the coordinating task force on homelessness that includes the city of Gresham and Home Forward. “These are our neighbors. It’s easy for people to think they don’t have to be invested in solutions when it’s people who come from outside.”

Multnomah County also is often criticized for offering too many services for homeless people, therefore attracting more here. But count results dispute that picture; only 9 percent cited access to services as a reason for their move and a smaller percentage, 7.4, reported moving here for the weather.

Rising rent and housing costs, a lack of affordable housing, coupled with stagnant wages are consistently pointed to as a reason for the ongoing crisis — not just in Portland, but across the West Coast. The state of Oregon saw a six percent spike in homelessness in 2017.

The Domicile Unknown report is also expected soon, produced by the Multnomah County Health Department.

It gives insight to deaths of homeless people. In 2015, 88 people died on Portland’s streets from various causes.

Here are a few points of interest from the full report, which was completed by Portland State University’s Population Research Center:

Racial disparities

People of color are consistently more vulnerable to homelessness than other populations.

Those groups made up 36.6 of the total 2017 count.

The most substantially vulnerable are Native Americans, who were more than 400 percent more likely to be homeless compared to those who are white and not Hispanic or Latino, according to the report. There were 424 homeless Native Americans in 2017.

The joint office is applying for grant money to help reduce the numbers of homeless Native Americans.

“We know that racial disparities remain in homelessness in Multnomah County. We’ve made some progress … but we haven’t made enough progress, by far, and that work remains,” Theriault said.

Among the homeless population, 57 were Asian; 675 were black or African American; 108 were Native Hawaiian/other Pacific Islander; 428 were Hispanic or Latino; and 2,944 were white.

More living in vehicles

Many of the traditional sleeping locations for homeless include the street, parks, doorways and abandoned buildings.

But the largest spike in 2017 was the number of people sleeping in vehicles.

257 people, or 15.4 percent, reported finding refuge in a car, truck, van or camper in the 2017 count, versus 10.3 percent in 2015.

Not particularly surprising considering the rise in complaints from neighborhoods, in particular about RV dwelling, which has prompted the city to consider installing an RV park and scheduled a free RV disposal day on Oct. 29.

More homeless in Southeast Portland

The Old Town/Chinatown and downtown areas have historically been hotbeds for homelessness, but that has shifted somewhat to Southeast Portland — which ranges from the Willamette River to Southeast 82nd Avenue. 22 percent of the unsheltered population was in Southeast Portland (19 percent in 2015) while 20 percent were in Old Town/Downtown/Pearl area (28 percent in 2015).

Disabling conditions

Of the total homeless population, 2,527, or 60.5 percent, reported having a disabling condition, meaning mental illness, drug or alcohol dependency, physical disability or some other chronic health condition. That’s up from 2,177 (or 57 percent) in 2015.

44 percent of those on the streets reported having severe mental illness and 37.5 percent with a substance abuse problem.

The Portland Tribune is a KOIN media partner.