The number of unsheltered homeless people recently counted in Multnomah County shows a 50% increase in three years.
Officials from three Portland-area counties — Multnomah, Washington and Clackamas — jointly released numbers Wednesday, May 4, from their 2022 point in time counts.
The point in time count is considered a snapshot, not a full picture, of the number of homeless people living in an area at a specific time. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development requires local governments that receive federal funding for programs directed at housing and homelessness to conduct the count on a bi-annual basis.
Earlier this year, Portland and Multnomah County's Joint Office of Homeless Services conducted its count for the first time since 2019. The joint office planned to conduct a count on the typical bi-annual schedule in January 2021, but received federal approval to postpone it by one year due to concerns about spreading COVID-19.
The numbers released Wednesday show a substantial increase in homelessness in Multnomah County.
Overall, 1,200 more people were counted this year compared to 2019, with 5,228 people and 4,015 counted in those years, respectively.
Multnomah County's increase can largely be attributed to the increase in people experiencing unsheltered homelessness — 2,037 people in 2019 and 3,057 this year.
Only 26 more people were counted in shelters this year than in 2019. The county's overall tally of people in shelters this year was 1,485.
The number of people counted in transitional housing — 686 people — increased by 32% this year compared to 2019.
The numbers also show an increase in homelessness regionally since all three counties last conducted counts.
There were 6,633 people counted this year across the three counties. That amounts to a 16% increase compared to 2019, when there were 5,711 people counted, data from earlier counts show.
Of the people counted regionally this year, 3,611 people were unsheltered, 2,222 people were in shelters and 800 people were in transitional housing.
The number of people experiencing chronic homelessness also has increased, officials said. This year, 3,674 people counted regionally were considered chronically homeless. People must be homeless for at least one year or have at least one disabling condition, such as addiction or a physical disability, to be considered chronically homeless.
The joint office plans to release its full point in time count report this summer. The full report will include demographic data for people counted and other information such as the impacts of the pandemic, officials said.
People of color in Multnomah County continue to face disproportionate rates of homelessness, according to the joint office. Forty percent of the people counted this year were people of color, officials noted — the only demographic data point they included. Non-white residents make up 21% of the county's population, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau.
Point in time count data is widely understood to undercount the true number of homeless people in a jurisdiction.
It's "not possible to definitively find, survey and count every person experiencing homelessness," officials said Wednesday.
For example, the counts don't include people living "doubled up," which refers to those who don't have their own homes but are living with friends or family.
Service providers report that people of color are more likely to be doubled up, making them underrepresented in the count, officials said.
Officials also noted that counts don't capture information about how many people move in and out of homelessness, adding that the number of homeless people in need of services over the course of a year is much larger than the number on any one night.
This year's data reflect the impacts the pandemic had on the homeless, officials said.
The pandemic increased the visibility of homelessness as local governments stopped efforts to remove homeless people from encampments for months after the onset of the pandemic. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advised the policy to limit the risk of COVID-19 infection that displacement would bring.
Homelessness researchers and service providers have long speculated that the economic impacts of the pandemic would cause an increase in the prevalence of homelessness.
Service providers were also acutely impacted by the pandemic, including during this year's point in time count, which occurred at the height of a surge in COVID-19 cases from the omicron variant, officials said.
Portland State University partnered with the joint office for the count, enlisting volunteers, outreach workers and service providers to survey homeless people during the count.
"Teams were unexpectedly forced to quarantine or were faced with lost staff the week of the count," officials said, adding that the number of surveys returned was lower than expected.
For the first time, the joint office included in its count homeless people registered in a by-name database used to streamline services called the "coordinated access system." The move identified hundreds of additional homeless people who had not been surveyed during the count, officials said.
Since Multnomah County's last point in time count, voters in the three Portland-area counties passed Metro's 2020 Supportive Housing Services measure.
Last July, the counties started receiving funding from the measure. It aims to end chronic homelessness regionally over the next 10 years by providing an unprecedented level of wrap-around services to homeless people and people at risk of becoming homeless.
The joint office's budget request for next year includes funding to support 2,000 shelter beds, officials said. An additional 700 shelter beds will be supported for COVID-19-related shelters and as part of currently being developed.
In mid-March, the joint office reported that it was supporting 1,600 year-round shelter beds on any given night, compared to 1,350 before the pandemic.
The joint office plans to conduct another point in time count in January 2023 to return to its normal schedule of counts in odd-numbered years, officials said.