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Amid surging COVID-19 rates, Multnomah County seeks to delay federally mandated homeless count

The announcement comes as concerns about rising rates of homelessness in the Portland metro area continue to mount.

PORTLAND, Ore. — Citing surging COVID-19 rates and concerns about new, more contagious strains of the virus, Multnomah County and Portland city officials have filed a request with the federal government to delay a mandated count of the area’s homeless population by a full year.

It’s a move that would normally disqualify a local governing body from receiving federal housing funding, allocated through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Late last year, in an unprecedented move, HUD announced it would let communities opt out of portions of the Point In Time Count, without jeopardizing federal funding.

According to a news release issued Tuesday, Multnomah County is one of several West Coast communities taking the feds up on their offer.

“It’s a difficult decision, but we don’t see a way to conduct as accurate of an unsheltered count as we’ve done in past years without creating additional health risks for thousands of vulnerable people and our provider community,” Marc Jolin, director of the Joint Office, was quoted saying in the release. “That’s not a trade-off we’re willing to make.”

The release noted officials “will still conduct a census of people in shelter and transitional housing, relying on data pulled from bed counts.” They just won’t send volunteers out into camps to provide an updated count of those living on the streets.

The announcement comes as concerns about rising rates of homelessness continue to mount. More and more tents, tarps and camps appear to be accumulating on Portland’s streets and sidewalks, but local officials have said there’s no new data to confirm that homelessness is indeed on the rise, or to what degree.

The 2021 Point In Time Count (PIT), which was scheduled to be carried out this month, would have provided that data.

HUD requires communities nationwide conduct PITs at least every other year. The process is labor-intensive, and involves teams of volunteers fanning out across the area, literally counting the number of people sleeping on the streets, in shelters and transitional housing.

Multnomah County’s 2019 PIT showed an estimated 4,015 people were experiencing homelessness, a number that was slightly down from previous years. Within that population, an estimated 2,037 people were “unsheltered," or sleeping outside. That count was the highest ever recorded in Multnomah County.

If, amid job losses and economic hardship tied to the COVID-19 pandemic, homelessness is indeed on the rise in the Portland area, it would fall in line with experts’ predictions. In 2020, an economist with Columbia University predicted a 40-45% rise in homelessness nationwide by the end of 2020.

RELATED: Study predicts national homelessness spike due to COVID-19. Here's what it means for Portland's housing crisis

Denis Theriault, spokesman for the Joint Office of Homeless Services, said while the count is a requirement for a community to receive federal housing dollars, producing new data with higher totals wouldn’t necessarily equate to Multnomah County receiving a boost in those funds.

“They haven't really been explicitly tying the counts to [funding],” he said via phone Tuesday. “Like those couple of years we've seen our overall number drop, and they didn't take money away … When they're making decisions on what to fund, they're looking at a bunch of program offers and deciding that those are worthy.”

Theriault added Multnomah County has postponed the count once before, though never by this much.

“We delayed for the big snow storm in ‘17 by a month,” he said. “We haven't really had the ability [to delay longer]. And HUD never gave anyone the ability to do this kind of delay before either.”

RELATED: Homeless tent fires on the rise in Portland