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Measuring homelessness

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The old saying among business consultants is that you can’t manage it if you can’t measure it.

That’s not true of managing everything. (Measures of quality don’t always reduce easily to numbers.) But it does seem true for at least one of Oregon’s most difficult problems: homelessness.

We know it’s a big problem. But we don’t know exactly what the problem is.

On May 4 the three Portland-area metro counties delivered a new point-in-time report (federally mandated, and conducted on January 26) on the numbers of homeless people. Those numbers by themselves point to a problem big enough to justify the widespread concern it’s getting: “6,633 people were counted as experiencing homelessness on the night of Jan. 26, 2022,” more than 5,000 of them in Multnomah, with several hundred each in Washington and Clackamas.

The numbers were up by about a quarter since the last report, which was taken in 2019 before the Covid-19 pandemic. But big numbers and increases aren’t unique to the Portland area. Only a quarter of Oregon’s documented homeless people are located there. In central Oregon (mainly in the Bend area), the numbers were up by about 17 percent (to about 1,300 people).

“The results, which will be reported to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, also make clear that people of color continue to face disproportionate rates of homelessness. In Multnomah County, for example, people of color made up almost 40 percent of everyone counted this year,” the Tri-County report added.

It also, though, acknowledged its limits: “This year’s data, like with every Point in Time Count, should be considered an undercount of people experiencing homelessness. Because of federal rules, the Count does not include thousands of people who did not have a home of their own on the night of Jan. 26 but were ‘doubled up,’ staying with friends or family. Culturally specific providers tell us that people of color are more likely to experience homelessness this way and are underrepresented in the Count as a result.”

Even with that, many people may be missed. Consider the people incarcerated but who have nowhere to go when they get out?) And, “As a one-night snapshot, the federally structured Count also isn’t designed to reveal how many people move in and out of homelessness over the course of a year, either losing their housing or gaining it back with support services.”

So we don’t know the real size of the real homeless population: But that’s just one dimension. We also have little information about the people, why they’re unhoused and what it might take to get them into shelter.

Stereotypes abound: They’re drug or alcohol addicts. They’re mentally ill. They’re financially irresponsible, or just unable to focus on keeping their lives together. They were evicted from living places made abruptly too expensive to afford. Race may be a factor. And there are other explanations.

These stereotypes didn’t emerge from nowhere: You can easily find case studies in support of them. But opinions have differed on what factors account for how much of homelessness, and what that would mean for solutions. If, for example, a tenth of people without a permanent residence got in that position because they were unable to fund or afford a residence, then a path to solving the problem might be clearer – for them. But that would leave a large majority of the homeless population still unaccounted for.

The stereotype often suggests a single man, but many reports have suggested a majority of unhoused people are women, and many children are among them. Exact information, again, is hard to come by.

The idea of a mix of responses was hinted at in a statement from Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury: “I believe in both/and responses to homelessness. That’s why I’ve led work to add hundreds of shelter beds, from villages to motels, before and during this pandemic. It’s also why I championed our Behavioral Health Resource Center, opening downtown later this year. But I’ve also worked to ensure we don’t give up on work that will help people leave those shelter beds, or avoid them in the first place: housing with support services.”

Still: Finding more beds under roofs to provide space for people off the street would be useful for some segments of the homeless population, but not much for others.

Next time around – presumably, next January – the point-in-time counters might try something more ambitious: A deeper dive of not just the top-line numbers of homeless, but a greater inquiry into the specific circumstances that got these people to where they are, and what combination of solutions might help get them somewhere better.

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